40,000 Movies in 91 Years, A Holocaust Survivor Shares Cinematic Diary
(Cheryl Weiss, Aug. 7, 2020)
Madison Heights, MI – How many movies do you think you have seen in your lifetime? Hundreds? Maybe a thousand? Madison Heights resident Alfred Zydower knows exactly how many movies he has seen, because he has kept a diary of every single one since his youth in the 1940s.
At the time of this interview, he had watched 40,125 movies.
From his childhood in Germany to the Nazi occupation to post-war Shanghai to his adult life in Metro Detroit, Zydower has loved everything about movies. They have been his entertainment, his escape, and his passion for 91 years.
Zydower’s love for the silver screen started early in childhood with the first movie he laid eyes upon, a documentary about Germany. “It was called Germany is Nice, or Germany is Beautiful,” he said.
In school, they would see movies occasionally, usually documentaries. Then his mother took him to the movies to see Snow White. “My uncle gave her money to take me,” Zydower said. The animation, the music, the story grabbed his attention and he was hooked. His mother was not as enthusiastic. “My mother usually would fall asleep” he said with a reminiscing laugh.
While this sounds like a normal childhood, going to see a Disney movie with his mom, Zydower had anything but a normal childhood.
He was born in 1929 in Fürstenwalde, Germany. His sister, Anna, was born eighteen months later. They are Jewish, and the family had an active life in the Conservative Synagogue they attended nearby. However, there were not enough young Jewish children for a Jewish nursery school, so Zydower attended a Catholic nursery when he was three years old. “it wasn’t really bad there,” he said.
Then the Nazi occupation began, and life changed for Zydower and his family. Anti-Semitism grew, and Jews were restricted from holding jobs they had, restricted from where they could go, what they could do, and how they could live daily life. On Kristallnacht, November 9-10, 1938, when the Nazis destroyed the synagogues, Jewish cemeteries, and shops, Zydower’s father was taken by the Gestapo.
The men who kidnapped Zydower’s dad forced him to work, though they did eventually allow him to return home in the evenings to his family.
Being in Catholic school and being friends with Catholic boys gave Zydower some advantage. He now praises his sister Anna for her devotion and strength, admitting that at times he hid his heritage and even said regrettable things in order to blend in and to survive.
“Even strangers, they never suspected I was Jewish,” he said.
Through a childhood of fear and hiding, opportunities to see movies were rare, making them even more of a treat.
For glimpses of the glamorous movie life, Zydower would buy magazines about the cinema and its stars. It was not an easy task, because if you were Jewish, you were not allowed to buy them. He would tell the shopkeepers that he was shopping for a lady who was not well, and she asked him to bring her the magazines. They believed him, and through the pictures and the stories in the pages, he found escape from a world of death, destruction, poverty, hatred, injustice and fear.
The family moved to Shanghai when Zydower was ten years old, and they lived in an established ghetto there with other Jews. Shanghai was already struggling with poverty, but as other nations closed their doors to refugees, here people could go and be safe. About 20,000 Jewish refugees made it there around 1938, but before long Japanese attacks took their toll on the already struggling city.
Conditions in the ghetto were crowded and unsanitary. Zydower recalls that there were no bathrooms, only “honey pots.” Cooking was done with coal dust or charcoal. Those who had electricity would cook one item at a time on a single burner.
If you were Jewish, you were not allowed to go to first run movies.
But there was a theater for refugees that played older foreign films. “I remember that it was a big theater that originally must have been a first run theater, but the area was bombed out.”
The movies had subtitles, and earphones available for rent. As much as Zydower loved going to the movies, though, there were some bad moments, like when he once found himself so afraid of the darkness of the theater that he wet himself. But like the brave heroes he’d see on the screen, he carried on and grew to love the experience of people gathering to laugh, to cry, and to be entertained together.
When Zydower was 16, he was still in Shanghai, and had a little bit of money because he was learning a trade. “I would get tips,” he said, “My mother never took the money, although she could have used it to feed the family. She said ‘No, no, that’s your money. You can go to the movies.’ And I would go.”
It was around this time that he began keeping a list of the movies he saw. “I wanted to keep a diary of them,” he said when asked why he decided to do this. “Each one is numbered,” he said proudly. The hardcover journals, faded with age, filled with movie titles and dates written in a pink ink, blue ink, black ink, and more make an impressive pile on his dining room table. Some writing is neat, some is scribbled, all are perfectly ordered.
In June 1948, the family arrived first in San Francisco, then went on to Detroit to settle there.
Zydower worked for Hudson Motor, a car company, then served in the army during the Korean War., There were other Holocaust survivors there that he met. When he arrived on the boat SS General Gordon, “I felt like I was in paradise.”
After the Army, he went back to Hudson Motor, which became American Motors. He was laid off, then worked for Dodge at a time when jobs were hard to find, in 1954 – 55. .He was laid off again in 1961, and this time nobody was hiring. Things were bad for a lot of people during President Eisenhower’s term, he explained. Finally, he was hired to work at Sanders, a local company known for their chocolates and candies.
Zydower’s work at Sanders was going great. He advanced faster than anyone else, and enjoyed his work.. In addition, each time he got a promotion, he got a pay increase. He was living a particularly sweet version of the American Dream: earning his way making candy, icing, caramel, two different kinds of fudge, and chocolate.
Even better, “You could eat as much candy as you want!” he said. “The nut stuff too, oh yeah! Peanut clusters, nut clusters.” When asked what his favorite candy was, he said, “All of them! Their candy was like European candy, with real chocolate and real ingredients.” He added his two cents about modern confections, saying “Candy now is made with wax.”
While he worked, he went to see movies when he could, and added each one to his movie list diary.
Along with the movie diary, he bought movie magazines and movie books from around the world, building a collection. His collection today fills numerous towering piles and stacks of boxes inside a spare room closet. Yellowed newspaper clippings with celebrity photos, movie reviews, glamour shots of movie stars, obituaries of the stars, photos of movie openings, taped to white notebook pages with tape brown with age.
Zydower no longer reads them very much these days, as he does not see close up very well. “I’m not considered blind, but close to it.” He can still see movies clearly, though. He hopes one day his collection of magazines and notebooks might make a nice addition to a museum or library.
What is it he loved so much about the movies?
“Movie stars were honored then, everyone knew about stars. Any movie you went to see, it was entertainment. When you went to the double features, some were excellent, some were junk, but you looked forward to seeing your favorite stars.” He often got Screen Stories movie programs. “I should have saved those Screen Stories. A friend sent some to me from Germany recently,” Zydower added.
Zydower worked at Sanders for as long as he could. An illness left him weak and in danger.
“The doctor said, ‘I tell you what. You want to kill yourself? Someone will ask you to help them lift and you will drop dead there.’” Zydower reluctantly agreed to go on disability.
Since retiring, he has more time to watch movies. He lives with his niece and her family, and has a room full of movie memories.
His favorite is Gone with the Wind. “I don’t know why,” he said when asked. “I am looking forward to the new version.”
Humphrey Bogart films are among the best in Zydower’s mind. “I can still tell you lines. I remember everything.” Sometimes he watches movies he really enjoys twice. Some movies he would love to have are not available for America. The German version of My Fair Lady is one of those, as well as the annual holiday play in Germany.
Most of the movies he watches are fiction, dramas, but he also enjoys documentaries and animated movies, especially those subtitled in German. He watches Amazon Prime movies, and he orders movies and series directly from Germany as well. “You learn quite a bit, especially when you watch historical movies. You learn a lot of history in there, things I never knew about Germany and Austria.”
Zydower also watches long-running German series shows. One ran for 34 years, another for 28 years. One just ended in 2018. He describes one series he enjoys as a show about a country doctor that takes place near Denmark. The show depicts the doctor’s life and focuses on the relationships with his family, his employees, and his world of marriage, family, and business. Each one is a treasured memory.
Zydower doesn’t just watch movies though. He enjoys spending time with family and friends. One of those friends is State Representative Robert Wittenberg. They first met when Wittenberg started volunteering with Jewish Family Services, and they were matched up.
Wittenberg called and asked him about the things he likes to do. Zydower responded that since he can’t drive, he needs to be taken to Café Europa once a month. They get together at least once a month for lunch, but Wittenberg spends additional time with Zydower beyond that. Wittenberg’s family has had dinner with Zydower, and he was invited to the baby naming when Wittenberg’s daughter was born. What started as a volunteer activity has grown into a true friendship.
Zydower also enjoys traveling; three years ago, he went back to Germany. “Jews are loved there now. “It was wonderful!” he said. “The Jewish population is growing, over 3,000 now. Young people are converting to Judaism. It is forbidden to talk about Nazism,” he said.
“It’s their home now,” he said of the Jewish people.
From Oliver Twist to High School Musical, Zydower has experienced over 40,000 stories, while also experiencing his own.