Award-winning documentary filmmaker Aviva Kempner was born in Berlin after World War II to an American father and a Polish mother. Her childhood was marked by the experience of her parents during and after the war. Her desire to understand them led her to a career in filmmaking. Although she herself did not experience the Holocaust, she used her first film, Partisans of Vilna, to highlight the heroism of those who resisted the Nazis. Her subsequent films tell the stories of other Jewish heroes — baseball great Hank Greenberg, who inspired Jewish Americans by his success on the field and his loyalty to his religion, and Gertrude Berg, the Oprah of her time and pioneer television producer and star. Aviva’s mission is to tell the stories of figures she calls “under-known Jewish heroes,” and in the process to shatter ethnic stereotypes.
Aviva Kempner shares insights into her personal background and experiences as an American war baby born in Berlin. The interview covers her parents' backgrounds, including her father's immigration to the US from Lithuania, his military service in World War II, and his work with the military government in Berlin. Her mother's experiences as a Polish worker in Germany during the war and her liberation by American forces are also discussed. Kempner reflects on her upbringing as a child of Holocaust survivors, emphasizing her mother's emotional connection to her lost family and the impact of Jewish holidays on her. She discusses her own fascination with the resistance and the Holocaust, which began during her teenage years through books like Exodus and Mila 18. Kempner discusses her activism and social justice work, including her involvement in the Civil Rights Movement and her advocacy for human rights issues related to Latin American and Native American communities. She attributes her commitment to social justice to her Jewish identity, which combines intellectualism, political engagement, and a sense of responsibility for repairing the world (tikkun olam). Kempner discusses her unexpected transition from practicing immigration law to becoming a filmmaker. She discusses the inspiration behind each film, her personal connection to the stories, the challenges of fundraising, and the importance of telling inspiring stories. Her views on Jewish identity, the Holocaust, and her involvement in Jewish community organizations are explored, along with her perspectives on feminism and the underrepresentation of women in the film industry.