As a teenager in the early 60s Aviva Kempner would go to baseball games at Detroit’s Tiger Stadium with her father–a Lithuanian-born Jew–and learn about the exploits of Hank Greenberg, the Jewish baseball star of the 30s and 40s. Greenberg played virtually his entire career with the Tigers, twice winning the most valuable player award and leading his team to three World Series appearances.

In September 1986 Kempner was in Los Angeles for a screening of Partisans of Vilna–a documentary about Jewish resistance during World War II that she wrote and produced–when she learned Greenberg had died there at the age of 75. She remembered her talks with her father and the way American Jews projected their ideals on the imposing, handsome Greenberg. Kempner felt his story had to be her next film.

Nearly 14 years later, she’s completed her first film as a director, The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg. From the opening strains of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” sung in Yiddish, Kempner sets Greenberg’s baseball accomplishments against a deeper consideration of Jewish identity. Through her interviews with Greenberg’s children, teammates, friends, and admirers, she returns to a signature theme–finding human decency and compassion within a largely hostile, sometimes violent social climate.

Throughout his career Greenberg was taunted and reviled by opposing players, managers, and fans. There were other Jewish baseball players, but Kempner argues his prominence made him a threat. Detroit was also home to two of the country’s most vociferous and powerful anti-Semitic propagandists, auto manufacturer Henry Ford and radio demagogue Father Coughlin. “Ford not only published an anti-Semitic tract [The International Jew], he dispersed it at his dealerships,” Kempner says.

The deeper she explored Greenberg’s life, she says, the more she saw links with her earlier film, Partisans of Vilna. “This film is different, and it’s not different,” she says. “It’s still the 30s and 40s, and what I consider the unknown or unrealized Jewish heroes.” The documentary is very much about memory and time. “When I was working on Partisans, I started thinking about what was happening to American Jews when the European Jews were dying. A lawyer I know who is very political said, ‘Don’t you remember there was a lot of anti-Semitism?’ My dad talked about how he couldn’t get into medical school. He had all of these negative encounters in the army. Then I heard Hank died, and I just knew that was the way I was going to explore American Jewry.”

A lifetime .313 hitter with 331 home runs and 1,276 runs batted in (despite missing three full seasons and parts of two others because of his army service), Greenberg was a major figure during the game’s classic period. Kempner’s film makes explicit the sense of the cultural, political, and historical forces he operated against. In 1938, as Greenberg was chasing Babe Ruth’s single season record of 60 home runs (he would finish with 58), Kempner points out, “two months later was Kristallnacht. After Pearl Harbor, he was the first baseball player to enlist. He was a power hitter, he was winning games. He didn’t change his name. He made a stand about Yom Kippur [he refused to play on the holiday]. Because he played in the midwest, because he played 70 years ago, his accomplishments and what he represented has been underplayed.”

Making the film meant opening up her own family’s wounds of pain, hardship, and loss. Her father immigrated to the United States in the 20s and fought in World War II. Her mother, who was born in Poland, “didn’t talk about the war growing up,” says Kempner. “There was a lot of pain. She passed as a Polish Catholic in Germany during the war. She was blond and green-eyed. She was liberated and taken to Berlin. My father was with the military government and he wrote a story about a sister and brother who were reunited. That was my mother.” They were married, and Kempner was born in Berlin in December 1946. The family moved to Detroit when she was four years old.

The Holocaust and its repercussions have obsessed Kempner since she was in college at the University of Michigan, where she studied psychology and urban planning and covered the antiwar movement for the school paper. She earned a law degree at Antioch School of Law in Washington, D.C., then promptly flunked the bar exam. (“I do very poorly on multiple-choice questions. I’m bright but not logical.”) She’s been based in Washington ever since. Working for a number of causes, such as securing visas for arrested political activists in Chile and helping out in a law firm that handled immigration cases, she met a growing number of documentary filmmakers. She even helped raise money for a project about the revolutionary movement in Iran. “I got more interested in the power of film, especially to show political events,” she says. “I saw this book, Image Before My Eyes, about Polish Jews between the wars, and I just decided I had to make a film about Jewish resistance. I wanted to go find out about what happened, make people ponder about the past and think about how we should do it differently.” She spent the next six years writing and raising money for Partisans of Vilna.

Kempner sees herself as part of a generation that must seek out the truth. “There’s a whole phenomenon–the politics and the psychology–of the second generation, the children of the Holocaust survivors. I cannot undo what was done, but I can explore what happened. If you look at the partisans, if they had help, if the surrounding communities had been more supportive, it might have ended differently. With this film, I wanted to show a time when somebody stood up to anti-Semitism. With the partisans, it was a way of how to die; they didn’t think they could survive. For Hank, he turned out to be a really good person. People should learn what it means to be a good person.”

The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg opens this weekend at the Music Box, 3733 N. Southport (773-871-6604). Tickets are $8. It opens next Friday at the Wilmette Theater, 1122 Central in Wilmette (847-251-7411).

–Patrick Z. McGavin

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marc PoKempner.