Woman in Gold‘s Randy Schoenberg travels to Europe with his son to trace hundreds of years of family genealogy in Fioretta.
“The greatest tragedies are actually the people who have nobody left to remember them. A person dies multiple times. They die when their life physically ends. They also die the very last time that they’re ever remembered and it’s up to us as the Jewish people to make sure that all of our relatives collectively never endure that final death.” – Rabbi Nolan Lebovitz
The first time I heard about Randy Schoenberg was when Woman in Gold was coming out in theaters. It just so happened to be by way of a cousin that also does genealogy on my dad’s paternal grandmother’s side of the family. Funny enough, my cousin just happens to have mutual cousins with Randy. The Jewish world can be particularly small sometimes. If you go back many generations, we’re all related…but that’s another story. Anyway, it turns out that Randy is more than just an attorney fighting to reclaim artwork stolen during the Holocaust.
It’s fascinating to watch Randy’s interest in his family history and how he passes it down to his teenage son, Joey. Joey may have reluctantly agreed to join him but it’s still quite the journey. I’ve never been to Europe so watching the film is like taking a trip to the Jewish areas back in the day. What’s fascinating to me on another level is how many of the old Jewish cemeteries are still standing. Given World War II, let alone other persecution towards Jews, it really is a surprise. You can say the same thing about so many of the archival records. The fact that they still exist and the Schoenbergs are able to trace their family from Vienna to Prague to Florence and Venice is just astounding! The thing with genealogy is that you need to know what you’re looking for or it’s a dead end.
Randy’s paternal grandfather, Arnold Schönberg, was a very influential composer who lived in Vienna. Interestingly, Randy’s maternal grandfather, Eric Zeisl, was also from Vienna but fled to Paris after the Anschluss before making his way to the United States. He would briefly compose film music for a while, including Abbott and Costello meet the Invisible Man. Much of his work in films were uncredited.
Beyond the Schoenbergs, it’s interesting to see what’s become of the old Jewish neighborhoods in Europe. The evolution is quite interesting especially in Vienna or Prague, where some people are making attempts to remember the history. The Holocaust did a number on so many Jewish communities between splitting up families or just wiping them out all together. There are cases where they don’t know what happened to someone. Maybe they were able to escape to the United States or elsewhere but no clue. Randy mentions finding a letter from someone who was trying to leave but they ended up dying in the camps. Anyway, many people play a role along the journey, which ultimately leads them to the gravesite of Fioretta in Venice. There’s a lot more about Fioretta and her husband’s history here. Weirdly, it involves both a false messiah and King Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon’s marriage.
Genealogy can be a truly fascinating thing. One thing leads to another and next thing you know, you’ve fallen down the rabbit hole. I would know because I’ve been doing this for over 20 years now. All it took was searching the internet for an Israeli cousin’s last name and next thing you know, my dad and I are updating the family tree that my great-aunt had made so many years prior. Once we worked through the errors, we discovered branches that had no records of for many years. A cousin related on both sides of my dad’s family put us in touch with another cousin working on a different tree. Next thing you know, I find out that I’m distant cousins with Rashida Jones and a pair of Oscar-winning filmmakers. That’s on top of learning that I went to a BBYO summer program with another cousin!
It gets more interesting through the years. Back in 2020, we found out that my dad’s paternal grandfather had siblings that we never knew about. I’m not sure if he didn’t talk about them because of the Holocaust or what. But in any event, I knew his uncle was a famous rabbi. It turns out that his uncle was none other than the Lithuanian Talmudic scholar, Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski. My great-grandfather’s grandfather and great-grandfather were both rabbis. Being religious myself, it was very fascinating to learn this. But anyway, it also speaks to how sites like JewishGen.org can be helpful in researching family histories. I can trace branches of my dad’s side through at least the 1700s.
No matter one’s knowledge of genealogy or Jewish history, Fioretta is a documentary that manages to keep audiences captivated as we follow the Schoenbergs on their journey. The side stories with the people we meet along the way are just as fascinating.
DIRECTOR/SCREENWRITER: Matthew Mishory
CO-WRITER: Rob Levine
FEATURING: E. Randol Schoenberg, Serena Nono, Arnie Schoenberg, and Joey Schoenberg