Zuzanna Surowy as Sara/Manya, in MY NAME IS SARA. Courtesy of Strand Release

How many 13-year-olds have the self-discipline to pretend to be someone else for two years, without once revealing the truth, even to their loved ones? MY NAME IS SARA is a tense historical survival drama that unfolds more like a thriller, which tells the true story of 13-year-old Sara Goralnik, who hid her Jewish identity in Nazi-occupied Ukraine for two years, even to Ukrainian Orthodox farmers. who she lives with.

There’s a particularly timely element to this true story film because it’s set in western Ukraine, part of which was in Poland when World War II began and part of it in the Soviet Union, but which was fully occupied by Germany when the story takes place. The film not only tells the harrowing personal story of Sara Goralnik, but gives us insight into the plight of Ukrainian farmers during the war, farmers who were brutalized and exploited by the occupying Nazis, but also subjected to raids by hidden partisans. in the woods. As much as they could support partisan goals in the fight against the Nazis, farmers were met with starvation by repeated raids from both sides.

MY NAME IS SARA sounds more like a thriller than a historical drama or a biography, even if it is also that. During World War II, many Jews attempted to survive by posing as Christians, and the fear of discovery gives these stories of hidden identity an inherent tension, but MY NAME IS SARA is exceptional. Not only does young Sara hide from the Nazis, but she has to hide her Jewish identity from the family she lives with. The Ukrainian Orthodox Christian farming family does not help him hide – or at least not knowingly. In some ways, they were as much of a threat to its security as the Nazis who occupied the nearby Ukrainian town, because not only did they share the anti-Semitic attitudes of their neighbors, but they were also driven by fear, because the Nazis brutally punish anyone who harbors Jewish refugees. The risk of discovery is ever-present and Sara has no one she can trust, but must appear calm at all times, a challenge for anyone but even more so for someone so young.

Sara (newcomer Zuzanna Surowy) and her family were living in Korets, Poland when the Nazis invaded. Before the war, Korets had a large Jewish population that was well integrated with Polish Catholics and Ukrainian Orthodox Christians. At the start of the film, Sara and her older brother Moishe (Konrad Cichon) are hiding in the woods, having fled the ghetto where their parents and two younger brothers are trapped. They attempt to cross the border into the Soviet Union, an area the Nazis also occupy, aiming to reach a farm belonging to an elderly non-Jewish woman whom their parents have paid to shelter them. But as soon as they arrive, Moishe realizes that they cannot stay, because the nervous woman risks betraying them. “You’d be better off without me,” he tells his younger sister, noting that her appearance, with light eyes and light hair, makes her more easily pass as a non-Jew than her more obviously Jewish features. The next morning, Sara makes the difficult choice to leave while her brother sleeps.

After walking through the woods, Sara, hungry and tired, emerges into a field where a Ukrainian farmer, Ivan (Pawel Królikowski), and his son Grisha (Piotr Nerlewski) are working. She tells Ivan that she is looking for work, her name is Manya Romanchuk and she ran away from a troubled family life in Korets. The farmer looks at her suspiciously, then asks her if she is Jewish, which she denies. He demands that she make the sign of the cross herself as proof that she is a Christian. Satisfied with her answer, the Ukrainians take her to the farm of Ivan Pavlo’s brother (Eryk Lubos) and his young wife Nadya (Michalina Olszanska) where Sara can work as a nanny for their two young sons. At the farm, Sara is again challenged to prove that she is not Jewish and, once again, passes their tests, though her new employers remain suspicious.

As Sara faces a constant threat of discovery, she also learns things about her Ukrainian farming employers who can help her. They also hate Nazi occupiers and dislike Russians so much, with lingering memories of the Soviet famine of the 1930s. She also learns that husband and wife each have secrets and each tries to gain her support in their troubled marriage.

Director Steven Oritt cranks up the tension in this movie in a series of biting scenes, and the threat is always on our minds. The true story is aided by the fact that Oritt interviewed the real Sara Goralnik Shapiro at length before her death in 2018, information which David Himmelstein used to write his screenplay. Besides hiding her identity during the war, the real Sara also kept her wartime experience a secret from her family until later in life. Although it just hit theaters, the drama was made in 2019 with backing from Steven Spielberg’s USC Shoah Foundation and with Sara’s real-life son Mickey Shapiro serving as executive producer. It has performed at several film festivals, including the 2020 Miami Jewish Film Festival, where it won the Audience Award for Best Narrative Film, and the 2019 Warsaw Jewish Film Festival, where it won the David Camera Award. Grand Prize. Oritt has made a few documentaries, but this is his first feature-length drama.

The film was shot on location in Poland with a Polish crew and with a Polish, German, Russian and Ukrainian cast, which gives it authenticity. It has beautiful cinematography by Marian Prokop, who took advantage of the lovely vintage Polish locations, aided by lovely art direction. The acting is good, with young Zuzanna Surowy particularly impressive as Sara, especially given her lack of acting experience. His still, sad face has an inherent underlying steel that serves the film well. Often, when the character is asked a tricky question or faced with a situation that threatens to expose her, Suwovy’s face remains still and unchanged for a moment, before she smiles and pretends to be happy or cooperative, a choice that has the effect of making the viewer hold their breath for a moment, raising the tension more than one might expect. Director Oritt does a masterful job of keeping the tension high throughout, never wearing us down with the suspense.

As the story unfolds, what is most amazing is Sara’s ability to pass herself off as a Ukrainian Orthodox Christian. Time and again, her employers test her, suspecting that she is Jewish, asking her to cross herself, eat pork and even recite Christian prayers. Although we eventually learn the reason for his knowledge of the Orthodox ways, we remain in awe that someone so young can so coldly pull off the impersonation. Beyond the religious tests, there are other threats hanging over her, including the fact that the village she fled isn’t that far away and she runs the risk of meeting someone who knows her.

The film also periodically reminds us of the deadly price the Nazis imposed on those who sheltered Jews. When another Jewish girl shows up at the farm, Sara tries to help without betraying herself, another reminder of the constant danger she finds herself in.

There’s a lot to admire in this movie, but it’s not all perfect. Some of the exposition is unclear, and we’re not quite sure what’s going on between Sara and Pavlo, although he’s clearly attracted to her. The film also has the characters speak in English despite presumably speaking Ukrainian, but uses subtitles for other languages, a choice some viewers might find awkward.

Overall, MY NAME IS SARA is a worthy drama, an impressive true story of Holocaust survival, about a lonely teenage girl forced to hide her identity and live by her wits, told with a thriller vibe and shot on location with beautiful cinematography and acting.

MY NAME IS SARA, in English and Polish, German and Russian with English subtitles, opens Friday, August 19 at the Marcus Des Peres Cinema and other cinemas.


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