When the war broke out, Leonid was a young, motivated and determined officer in the Red Army. But his patriotic eagerness was quickly shattered against the iron fist blow of the Nazi regime. His unit was surrounded and then obliterated, leaving Berenshtein laying in a swamp, bleeding, mortally wounded. In his last forces, he managed to reach a village, where a farmer named Piotr, hid him in his cellar. Not fully healed, Leonid decided to leave and find a partisan battalion to join back the fight. Barely escaping a Nazi patrol, he endures months in the freezing snow until he finally manages to find and join a partisans’ platoon. Thus, began the career of the man who would become one of the most influential partisans of the 2nd World War.
Living in a small apartment in the north of Israel, Leonid kept the stories in his vaulted head, longing to tell them to whomever wish to hear but unfortunately no one listened. Caring the wounds that made him a hero, the hard-hearted veteran lives in seclusion and anonymity alongside his loving day-keeper and tries to make sense of the world today. Leonid Berenshtein was a soviet patriot and apart from his obviously Jewish surname, nothing gave away his true identity. Growing up under the horrid Stalin regime and the years of the great famine in Ukraine he never thought about his identity until he became a Partisan where he was forced to use a non-Jewish name.
Berenshtein was a fighter, a boxer, he solved things with his fist and courage which made his military operations a myth within the ranks of his unit. However, his success did not blind him and often put him in conflict with his true identity. The higher esteem he received the greater his secret became a burden until he disobeyed a direct order by the army’s HQ, entered the small town in Poland - Bolegrud, and freed more than 100 Jews that had been sentenced to death. He recruited them to his partisan platoon, looking at their beaming eyes as they were given weapons and the opportunity to fight back. His Jewish identity was awakened in time of war; the meeting with the horrors of the holocaust in occupied Europe, dealing with his fellow soldiers’ anti-Semitism in the forests, and the systematic harassment he experienced in the Red Army – all these enflamed his need to expose his true identity.
The film follows the story of Berenstein’s life in the woods of Ukraine and Poland, using historic and dramatic reenactment. The pieces of his universal and deeply human story are assembled into a cinematic portrait of a true WW2 “super-hero”, worthy of international acclaim and recognition. The epic war scenes are woven into the film’s documentary narrative and confront the 95 years old Leonid with his younger version. The camera opens his past traumas taking him back in time and confronting his harsh decisions and his regrets. From that small, rundown flat, left and forgotten and on his deathbed, Berenstein, in a gut-wrenching monologue, shares his feelings, memories, anger and conclusions from his dramatic life-journey. From portraying the gap between fiction and documentary, the film will examine a bleak depiction of our collective, societal selective memory, and problematic handling of our true historical heroes. But above all, this is a story of a simple boy, who despite the horrors of war and the antisemitism surrounding him succeeds to find himself and his identity in order to become a leader.
Berenshtein - Army Career
Leonid Bernstein, a highly decorated Partisan battalion commander, was born in Ukraine in 1921 and served as a lieutenant in the Red Army. Upon assuming command over the intelligence unit in a partisan platoon, he brought about the derailment of 44 Nazi trains. His unit took an important part in the Battle of Dnieper in November 1943, allowing the Red Army forces to cross the river south of Cherkassy. As the commander of a battalion, he liberated several prisoner camps in Poland and many of them joined his unit to continue fighting the Nazis. The intelligence information he conveyed to the Soviet Air Force enabled them to bomb a clandestine German installation at Debica, Poland, that served to test German famous V2 rockets. Bernstein had to smuggle himself and his fighters into the facility where they lit torches in an arrow shape in order to illuminate the weapons supplies for the Soviet bombers. The production capabilities were destroyed but the laboratories and production lines survived. The information gathered at the site influenced the entire history of aeronautics and space exploration, and the destruction of the facility and the V2 rockets was probably the final straw for Hitler's last hope for victory.
During the last months of the war, Bernstein led 5,000 fighters into Slovakia and helped in the Slovakian revolt against the Germans. For his heroism, he was awarded multiple war decorations including the Medal of Excellence in Battle. He also received honorary citizenship in two cities in Poland and two cities in Slovakia.