“Heritage Day” is a different kind of Holocaust film. The 20 minute short takes place in 1985, for starters, and it doesn’t feature any survivors going through the harrowing trauma of the Holocaust. Instead, it has Rachel Bloom as Sarah — in colorful prints, shoulder pads and big sweaters — and Vivien Lyra Blair, an 11-year-old super star who played princess Leia in “Obi-Wan Kenobi,” who plays her precocious daughter, Evie. Evie finds herself obsessed with reenacting her estranged grandmother’s tale of surviving Auschwitz after recounting it on her school heritage day.
Yet as the granddaughter of survivors, “Heritage Day,” inspired by director Lara Everly’s own life (Evie is named after her Holocaust survivor grandmother, Eva), is the kind of Holocaust film I’ve always wanted. It’s funny, complicated, human and memorable. It’s a story about Jewish mothers and daughters — and the importance of talking to our kids.
Evie’s grandmother, who the viewer only gets to know in the film as a voice across a phone line, is a flawed, broken human being. She tells her story to her granddaughter with love and openness, but she’s also an absentee mother who rejected her daughter’s intermarriage. She’s a person whose psyche is most likely deeply scarred from the horrors she endured. In other words, she’s a woman like the survivors I grew up with.
For Bloom, whose husband, Dan Gregor, is the grandchild of survivors, that is precisely what drew her to the film.
“My husband — because he was so raised with the Holocaust around him being a very real part of his life — has a very specific allergy to almost the opposite of what this short is,” Bloom told me when I interviewed her on October 4.
“Whenever we see a play or a movie that just kind of goes into Holocaust stuff, and it feels unearned from a dramatic perspective, he’s like, this is just manipulative. You’re using the Holocaust as a way to try to get awards or to try to get clout.”
For Bloom, the short does the opposite. “It actually treats the Holocaust as a thing that happened to humans that was perpetrated by humans and is the opposite of being exploitative.”
“The idea of portraying this Holocaust survivor as a person who was affected by what happened to them and was not a perfect — or even great — mother is something I haven’t seen. I think people are afraid to portray people affected by the Holocaust is anything but saints, but people are people,” Bloom told me over Zoom in early October, a few days before the concept of being Jewish in this country was completely flipped on its head.
Bloom is drawn to Jewish stories. “There are so many more facets to explore, especially with Jewish women, because for so long Jewish narratives were very male,” she tells me. While she is an atheist Jew, she loves Jewish ritual. “I just love Jewish food. I love Jewish deli. Kugel — I love. I love basically all Jewish food. What I like about the cultural things is that this is stuff that for thousands of years has been practiced by the people from whom my DNA is descended from, that has calmed them. You don’t have to be religious to understand and feel a connection to just ritual for ritual’s sake.”
“All four of my husband’s grandparents are Holocaust survivors,” Bloom says — a fact that really struck home for Bloom as she watched her in-laws grandparent her daughter. “They literally never had grandparents, because they were all killed in the Holocaust.”
Her own experience with the Holocaust was less personal. “I knew about the Holocaust as a kid,” Bloom recalls, “but because I didn’t really have any relatives who experienced it —the bulk of my family came over in the late 1800s, early 1900s — it almost seemed like a myth. And there is something as a kid — I found I was infinitely actually less sensitive as a kid than I am now with the idea of death, children dying, mass death.”
There’s an openness to the film, a sensibility around parenthood that values respecting and listening to our kids. There’s a very visceral portrayal of the pure all-encompassing exhaustion of parenting alone without the safety net of loving grandparents. Sarah struggles with her daughter’s disturbing actions, with the pains of second motherhood, and the strains it has put on her relationship with her husband, played by “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” co-star Scott Michael Foster. Seeing her almost topple under that stress hit incredibly close to home.
There’s also a lot of humor. When Evie walks downstairs dressed like a prisoner at Auschwitz, Bloom’s character says, “This is the ‘don’t break mommy at 7:30 in the morning and make her regret having children and day drink’ face.”
There’s “something really beneficial and kind of rebellious about bringing comedy to an unexpected topic like the Holocaust, because comedy is sticky — it sticks with people’s brains in a way that drama or documentary sometimes doesn’t. It kind of slips past people’s defenses and gets them to think about something in a different way. I think it also just brings in a wider audience,” Everly explains.
“Heritage Day” is about the important lessons of parenthood, but it’s also about how the experience of drowning in its all-consuming minutia brings us closer to our parents — to understanding their flaws and the trauma that informed their experience of parenthood. That’s certainly one of the very moving things that happens to Sarah during the film. Yet the short is also incredibly pertinent because it is about how we talk to our kids about painful, weighed topics. Sarah keeps trying to circumvent a meaningful conversation around the Holocaust. It’s too heavy, too hard, for her too, as the daughter of a survivor.
“Genocide, slavery is so ugly,” a fellow mother tells Sarah during a playdate. “But maybe history repeats itself because we’ve made it so unbearable to even talk about.”
Bloom felt that “Heritage Day” “spoke to something I hadn’t seen, which is the reluctance of Jewish people to talk about the Holocaust, because I think that also crosses a lot of cultures — like how do you talk about trauma with kids?”
As a parent of a 3-year-old, she herself has a more visceral understanding of that reluctance. “My 3-year-old is now asking about death,” Bloom says. “There’s a song from ‘Frozen 2’ that gives her bad dreams and an existential crisis.”
Yet for Blair, who isn’t Jewish, but is an absolute oracle of wisdom and talent, avoiding those conversations, especially now, in the age of Google and TikTok, might mean paying a heavy price.
“Nowadays, especially with phones and ways to just know anything at any time that you want to, um, kids are so curious that if they hear their parents talk about something that they know their parents aren’t going to tell them about if they ask, they just take it through their parents and into their phone.”
“They might learn about it in a way that might traumatize them more than learning about it in a more safe environment, like from your parents,” she cautions. “So I think being honest, is actually going to keep them more safe and probably less traumatized than if they went and tried to dig for themselves, which I have personally experienced,” Blair told me about a terrifying phase in which she was hyper fixated with the story of Slender Man, for example, much to the consternation of her mother. Some of the sources that kids find on the internet “may even be intentionally trying to traumatize you,” she says.
In the movie, the more Sarah tries to hide and shy away from talking about her mother and the Holocaust, the deeper Evie’s hyper fixation grows. She insists on wearing striped pajamas with a Jewish star, on not showering, on eating outside with no cutelry. Her play changes — her barbie dolls lose their hair and their clothes and get chased by “Hitler” (a Care Bear doll altered with the signature loathed mustache). When Sarah finally finds a way to openly broach the topic, to apologize for how her internalized shame kept her daughters from the truths she deserved, does the relationship between them have a chance to heal.
“Heritage Day” is a reminder of the innate wisdom of our kids, of the fact that they are worthy of knowledge and respect — that they are entitled to it. I think with the current reality, both with state of Holocaust education in the U.S., the attempts to ban books all over the country, and the war in Israel and Gaza and its reaction on our soil, that reminder is more important than ever. We’re seeing so much ignorance about the Holocaust, but I also see a lot of young Jews struggling with the sanitized way they were taught about the Israeli Palestinian conflict — the way they weren’t trusted with its more complex nuances.
“What people should take away from this is that sometimes trying to protect your child can turn into them becoming naive, and it can hurt them,” an impassioned Blair tells me. “I think it can hurt them more than whether they heard it from a person that they trust and believe that they’re trying to tell them the truth. And if you, as a parent, don’t tell them, it’s going to take some of that trust away. And it’s going to make them less willing to listen to you, because they don’t feel like they can trust you. Because they had to figure out something that was probably more painful than if you just trusted them enough to tell them in the first place. And so I think it has to kind of take the trust both ways of the child has to trust the parent to tell them things, and the parent has to trust the child to come to them for instead of going off on their own and hurting themselves. And, and I think that’s what kind of should be taken away from this as as a more underlying message.”
At a time when it’s so hard for us to find the common threads of humanity in each other, “Heritage Day” is also about how these small, human stories, connect us with history.
“I think that it’s very easy to say ‘never forget’, and to say this for all sorts of trauma,” Bloom muses, “But that’s a very empty thing to say if you don’t actually back it up with critical thinking and actually talking about issues and specificities. I think that something that never made sense to me about the Holocaust was [that] when you start to present these numbers, millions and millions of people, they almost become a kind of faceless group. It’s why focusing on individual stories is very important and very powerful.”