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In ‘Shalom Italia,’ brothers seek cave where they hid from Nazis

A scene from 'Shalom Italia,' a documentary by Tamar Tal Anati (PBS)

On the run from Nazis, three Italian Jewish brothers spent months during their childhood hiding in a cave in the Tuscan countryside. Nearly 70 years later, after immigrating to Israel, the three reunite in the country they were forced to abandon and rediscover their hiding place. “For years I’ve wanted to find that cave, the place to which we owe our lives,” says Bubi, the youngest of the trio.

Amid hearty Tuscan meals and sweeping landscapes, the octogenarians’ quest unexpectedly swells with humor and clashing memories in “Shalom Italia,” which will air on the PBS documentary series POV (Point of View) on Monday, July 24 at 10 p.m. The feature film will follow the Oscar®-nominated short “Joe’s Violin,” in which a donated musical instrument forges an improbable friendship between a 91-year-old Holocaust survivor and a 12-year-old Bronx school girl.

Retracing their steps, the brothers in “Shalom Italia” are as different as can be. Emmanuel, the oldest and a world-renowned anthropologist and archaeologist based in Israel, simply recalls misery and only agrees to the journey to make Bubi happy. “Why search for it? I don’t want to remember,” he says.

Meanwhile, Andrea, an athletic physicist just two years younger than Emmanuel, remembers an enchanted childhood: “Those were wonderful times. We lived in the woods, played Robin Hood and collected mushrooms. I had fun during the Holocaust.”

Bubi, 4 1/2 at the time, barely remembers the cave. “I don’t know whether family stories and my memories overlapped. It’s all a bit vague.”

“It’s human for our memories — personal or shared — to become a source of our identity,” says filmmaker Tamar Tal Anati. “Whether that memory comes from one ‘truth’ is explored by Bubi, Emmanuel and Andrea. Often it seems any particular moment can only be accurately constructed when everyone is involved, as each person’s particular recollection of an event helps piece together a larger mosaic of a shared experience. I hope ‘Shalom Italia’ will inspire American audiences to reexamine their own stories and history.”

Unalike as they are, Bubi, Andrea and Emmanuel are undoubtedly brothers. They bicker over driving directions, recipes and how exactly their time in the cave should be remembered. Probing the boundaries between history and myth, the brothers soon learn their memories are not so easily unraveled. They can’t agree whether the family hid valuables with a village neighbor, or whether the bow and arrows they played with in the woods were bought at a store or fashioned by hand. “History is full of doubts,” Emmanuel, says, to which Bubi impatiently replies, “You keep doubting and contradicting everything and saying it’s not true over and over again.”

“More than 70 years after the Holocaust, the youngest survivors are advancing in age. Both ‘Joe’s Violin’ and ‘Shalom Italia’ raise compelling questions about how we will continue passing on that generation’s memories,” says POV executive producer Justine Nagan. “In ‘Joe’s Violin,’ those connections are made across cultural and economic lines, reminding us how often our lives are woven together across common divides. On the other hand, ‘Shalom Italia’ compels us to probe the limits of memory and recognize its inherent malleability.” Nagan continues, “Despite the gravity of the history, both films are immensely enjoyable and uplifting work that speak to the resiliency of humankind.”

‘Shalom Italia’ and ‘Joe’s Violin’ will stream online on pov.org from July 24 through Aug. 26.

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