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Tickling Leo: A Tale of Love and Loss

First-time director Jeremy Davidson’s film, Tickling Leo, reaches deeply into the lives of a family of Holocaust survivors.

The daughter of Holocaust survivors myself, I usually avoid films and books about that time. I grew up immersed in the horrors of my parents’ war experience, just like the second-generation son in Tickling Leo. The movie grapples with the impact of trauma across generations, which is a main theme in my own life, too.

scene from Tickling Leo
Annie Parise, as Delphina Adams, talks with Lawrence Pressman, as Warren Pikler, in a scene from Tickling Leo. Photo: Karin Partin

The film is a man’s story. The relationships between fathers, sons and brothers are central. Davidson, a well-known television actor who also wrote the script for the film, worked on the story for nearly a decade. “What stayed consistent through all those drafts,” Davidson says, “was my desire to understand something about fatherhood. And how silence between generations does not necessarily prevent history from perpetuating itself within a family.”

Davidson is on the cusp of starting his own family as he and his wife, Mary Stuart Masterson, an actress and producer of Tickling Leo, are expecting their first child in October. They are an interfaith couple. Echoed in Tickling Leo are aspects of Davidson’s own life. Like Davidson, the main character in the film, Isaac, has a girlfriend, Delphina, who is pregnant.

There are other parallels between the character’s life and Davidson’s. Davidson says: “The family in the film struggles with Judaism. When I was in third grade, I remember my rabbi saying all true Jews would be resurrected in Jerusalem. I remember feeling that when the Messiah comes, my father would accompany my brothers and myself; my mother would be left behind. My mother wasn’t really [considered] Jewish. When I was 8 and my brothers 6 and 5, we had to be converted as well.”

Davidson chose to film Tickling Leo in upstate New York, where he and his brothers grew up and attended an Orthodox synagogue. Though each had a bris and their mother converted, their community did not consider them Jewish until their conversion, as their mother was not born Jewish. In Tickling Leo, the protagonist’s mother, who has already died before the story begins, was also not Jewish. Her son, Isaac, called Zak in the film, was driven from Judaism by his father’s conflict with the family history.

Tickling Leo pivots on the hidden story of Zak’s father’s escape from Hungary in 1944 during the German occupation, with his father, Emil–Zak’s grandfather–and his younger brother, Robert–Zak’s Uncle Bobbie.

The film opens with scenes showing the deterioration of Warren Pikler, Zak’s father, including one early in the film in which the middle-aged man appears nude in hiking boots, crunching leaves in the woods. The scene cuts to an idyllic afternoon in the park, introducing Zak and his girlfriend. After a distressing phone call from his Uncle Bobbie, Zak decides to visit his father, whom he tells Delphina he hasn’t seen since his mother died because he’s angry that his father didn’t go to his mother’s funeral. As the film progresses, Zak and Delphina discover more of the family’s secrets.

The actor who plays Zak, Daniel Sauli, says, “In a sense, Zak has been imprisoned by something he had nothing to do with.” I, too, have been trapped by the silence of my parents, who are now both deceased, about their Holocaust experiences. And psychologists have observed “that when intrafamilial communication about the parents’ traumatic experiences is hindered, children suffer adverse effects, including problems of identity.”

Ronald Guttman
Ronald Guttman plays Bobbie Pickler in Tickling Leo. Photo: Karin Partin

Warren, his son, Zak, and Uncle Bobbie have been molded by events surrounding their family’s escape from Hungary on the “Kasztner” train in 1944. Director and film writer Davidson says: “Nothing seemed more painful to me than the discord the Kasztner Affair created within the Jewish community. And still seems to create. For me … the accusations of ‘silence’ that Kasztner and the Jewish leadership were charged [with] after the war seemed to be the most difficult legacy a family might have to bear.”

Kasztner and the Jewish Council decided the best chance they had to save lives was to keep the Hungarian ghettos calm by remaining silent about Auschwitz, Davidson explained. They had access to the Auschwitz Protocols, a report by two Slovak Jews, Rudolph Vrba and Alfred Wexler, who had escaped Auschwitz prior to the Nazi invasion of Hungary, and knew what was happening in the camps.

“And so, while Kasztner negotiated with Eichmann for the nearly 1,700 lives aboard his ‘ark,’ 500,000 Hungarian Jews willingly and ignorantly climbed aboard cattle cars bound for their deaths. Granted, Kasztner had hoped to save more lives than those that were on his train and believed the train would be the first of many freedom trains out of Hungary, but it was a gamble that many Hungarian survivors who lost their families in Auschwitz did not appreciate,” Davidson says.

“Three generations later, that silence still affects the fictional family in my story,” Davidson continues. “It manifests itself differently in each character … but it’s part of them. And I don’t think it’s unique to Holocaust survivors. Silence about the past is a common way for families to try and reshape and censor their own narrative from each generation. And yet, for me, the darker pockets of our histories seem to be the most important to discuss.”

Each of the male characters in Tickling Leo copes differently with the horror of the family history. For Uncle Bobbie, his defensive posture is, “I’m a survivor, I make light [of things].” He has learned from his father, Emil (the grandfather played by Eli Wallach), who, living in a retirement home aptly named Jerusalem, steeps himself in baseball and brags about having a jersey signed by Sandy Koufax, the iconic Jewish athlete who reigned in the early ’60s.

One of the last scenes in the film shows Bobbie’s manic joy about a baseball game on TV where “their” team has won. It’s his coping style of “I make light.” This son has absorbed his father’s desire “to teach his children to love life, to want to be alive. My sons are alive.” Emil says, “And that’s something.” Considering their escape from the Nazis, yes, that’s “something.”

But for all of Bobbie’s overt displays of vitality, he’s had three wives and never fathered a child–his current wife says he’s sterile–and he now finds himself, like his name Pikler, in a “financial pickle.” This reminds me of my maternal family. None of us in the second generation, the children of the few who escaped the Holocaust in Germany, has a biological child. And we’ve certainly not been successful financially.

Warren is eager for his son to father a child, which he mentions several times. Zak, however, is reluctant to admit his girlfriend’s pregnancy–to accept or to share the joy of awaiting a child. Denying the pregnancy to his father at one point, Zak says, “We don’t have kids.”

“It’s a hard world–nobody cares how you feel,” says Warren, who in this fictional story survived the Holocaust as a young child. In the 1960s, when Warren would have been a young man, according to psychologist Yael Danieli, “no one listened to them [survivors] or believed them when they attempted to share their Holocaust experiences and their continuing suffering. They, and later their children, concluded that people who had not gone through the same experiences could not understand and/or did not care. With bitterness, many thus opted for silence about the Holocaust and its aftermath in their interactions with non-survivors. The resulting conspiracy of silence between Holocaust survivors and society … intensifies their already profound sense of isolation, loneliness and mistrust of society.”

Ticking Leo is set around Yom Kippur, the most solemn Jewish holiday. The Jewish liturgy for the High Holidays repeats, “On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed … Who shall live and who shall die … Who shall be at peace and who shall be tormented … .” Zak says, “The only time he [his father] was interested in beingJewish was on Yom Kippur so he could feel good about punishing himself.”

Zak has absorbed and lives his father’s legacy of Holocaust trauma. In a wrenching scene with his pregnant girlfriend, who is trying to understand his anguish, Zak screams: “It doesn’t bother me. I don’t fuckin’ care about it. It’s history; it’s ancient fuckin’ history. It has nothing to do with me. Let it go!” Where will Zak let the pain go?

Girlfriend Delphina is pregnant with Zak’s baby. Is he willing to become a father and pass his family’s complicated and painful history to his child? Davidson could write a sequel to Tickling Leo with Zak, his wife and child, showing their challenges as an interfaith second-generation survivor family.

With Tickling Leo now being screened at selected theaters across the country and available on DVD, Davidson and his wife await the arrival of their first child in October. The baby will be a “Greenberg,” they’ve decided, which is Davidson’s father’s name.

“I’d like to think of ourselves as spiritual people,” Davidson says about raising his soon-to-be first-born child with his wife who is not Jewish. “Elements of Judaism are very important to us [and] love of the culture and the people we’ve come from.” But, Davidson adds, “There are things [about raising an interfaith child] I’m going to have to deal with for the rest of my life.” “has been a tremendous resource for us,” Davidson says, for planning his wedding and now rituals to celebrate the birth of his child.

For their child, the writing and making of Tickling Leo will be a part of the family’s Jewish history.

The backstory for Tickling Leo surges through Warren’s mind in painful flashbacks. Extra features for the film on the DVD include a passenger on the Kasztner train, Ladislaus Lob, who talks about the actual events when he escaped as a child with his father. The historian and Holocaust scholar Michael Ezra also appears on the DVD discussing events surrounding the rescue train and the condemnation of Kasztner afterward when he moved to Israel, where he was assassinated in 1957.

Lob accuses Tickling Leo of condemning Kasztner in the film, but Davidson responds: “I feel that what Kasztner went through–it really isn’t my place to judge. We look at history through our own lens of experience. I think it’s fair to remember the people who have resentment about the silence.”

As a second-generation survivor, I would like to see Davidson expand the scope of the extras and add an interview with a psychologist who specializes in effects of the legacy of Holocaust trauma. Tickling Leo has already won an award for Best Feature at the Stony Brook Film Festival. I’m sure more accolades will follow at festivals and from audiences everywhere.

Hedi Molnar

Hedi Molnar, a writer and editor, lives in New Jersey with her husband and two daughters. She is a second generation Holocaust survivor. Her family belongs to Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, N.J.


Author: Hedi Molnar