2017-04-26 / Home

Teen’s film fulfills veteran’s wish to pay respects to fallen sailors

Voice staff

Antony Post with World War II Navy veteran Simon Zayon. Antony Post with World War II Navy veteran Simon Zayon. It started with a Maltese coin that World War II veteran Simon Zayon gave to Suzanne Post, program coordinator for adult services at the Katz JCC in Cherry Hill, three years ago. This simple gesture not only formed a bond between Zayon, stationed in Malta during his Naval service, and Post, the proud daughter of Maltese heritage; it sparked Post’s now 15-year-old son Antony to create “Kaddish,” a documentary film based on Zayon’s longtime desire to honor U.S. sailors who died defending the strategically important island nation.

“I was privileged to go back to Malta in Simon’s place to honor the memory of the servicemen who made the ultimate sacrifice during World War II,” explained Antony, an aspiring filmmaker and freshman at Haddonfield High School. During a family vacation to Malta this summer— Antony’s first time—he and his mother shot footage of his journey to discover where American soldiers are buried and to pay homage to them.

“Kaddish” is a short but deeply evocative piece detailing Malta’s significance in the war mixed with Zayon’s recollections of his tour of duty on the USS. Savannah, a naval cruiser that safely escorted then President Franklin Roosevelt to the famous Yalta conference with Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin near the war’s end.

Antony used his phone and a tripod to shoot scenes of modern-day Malta and to document his attempts to seek out information on fallen soldiers. Footage of a ferry ride between the islands of Malta and Gozo served as the backdrop of the film’s emotional climax, in which Antony chants the Kaddish, an intonation in praise of God recited for the dead, while Zayon recites the English translation.

Antony, who is not Jewish, was familiar with the ancient liturgy from attending shivas with his mother, a longtime JCC employee. He taught it to himself to record for the film.

The movie was well received during its debut during the Cherry Hill Volvo Cars Jewish Film Festival of the JCC last month, when Antony also impressed the audience during a Q&A about the film following its showing. “Kaddish” will have upcoming showings in Haddonfield schools and during the township’s Memorial Day ceremony, said Suzanne Post.

For South Philadelphia native Zayon, the youngest of five brothers born to immigrants from the Ukraine who all served in the war, words do not do justice to how he felt when he saw the film for the first time. Accustomed to telling his story, he was previously featured in a documentary film created by a Rutgers University professor and regularly speaks in schools. But this was different; he thought it was only going to be a small-time school project.

“Put it this way, (until I saw the film) I haven’t cried since my wife died, and she died in 1978,” said Zayon, a Cherry Hill resident who started coming to the JCC three years ago for rehabilitation therapy after an accident.

He was only 15 when the attack on Pearl Harbor occurred and tried to join the Marines, but was rejected for his age. When he was finally old enough, he left high school in 11th grade to join the Navy. One of his first stints of service was on the Savannah, which was newly refurbished after German bombs attacked it, killing many of the crew, on September 11, 1943. As part of the task force that brought Roosevelt to Yalta, the Savannah crew spent weeks stationed around the island nation.

Zayon said that when he met Suzanne, he was eager to talk to her about Malta and its “brave, wonderful people,” including the children who used to come out to the water to greet the “bug boats.”

“Probably her father was one of those kids,” he said.

For Antony, who has made 16 movies with family and friends and grew up on stories about Malta, “Kaddish” was a departure from the horror films and spoofs of movies like “Star Wars” he had created in the past.

“Kaddish” posed different challenges, since he had to stick to the truth and figure out how to present a short story based on fact-finding while on vacation and meeting up with relatives. For example, the goal of finding a cemetery where American servicemen were buried came to a dead end when he and his mom learned that the sailors who died during boat attacks were buried at sea.

As a result, the Kaddish recitation is paired with footage of Antony during a boat ride—to beautiful effect.

“This has been the biggest thing I’ve ever done and the most professional,” said Antony, who is currently taking his first video production class at Haddonfield High School and is also involved in theater. “It was special not only to have my film shown but to talk with the audience. I really think this is helping me in realizing my true passion.” 

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