Actress Rachel Weisz tells Francine Wolfisz about preserving the memory of the first female ordained rabbi in her new film, Regina.

The only surviving photograph of Rabbi Regina Jonas, taken in 1929.

The only surviving photograph of Rabbi Regina Jonas, which was taken in 1936.

Rachel Weisz describes her as “the most significant female figure in 20th Century Judaism” – and yet very few can claim to know the inspirational story of Regina Jonas.

Berlin-born Jonas fought against accepted religious mores to become, in 1935, the first woman to be ordained as a rabbi and worked tirelessly to bring encouragement to persecuted German Jews following her deportation to Theresienstadt in 1942. Jonas’ name was all but forgotten following her death at Auschwitz two years later.

Now a new documentary about her life, which premieres at JW3 next Wednesday, hopes to pay tribute to the pioneering woman. Regina, from Hungarian director Diana Groó, features award-winning actress Rachel Weisz as the voice of Jonas.

Speaking exclusively to the Jewish News, Rachel said: “I was very inspired by the story of Regina and her great humanist values. I was struck by her bravery to remain in Germany during such a volatile time to be with her community.

“Regina is the most significant female figure in 20th Century Judaism, but all traces of her disappeared after her death in Auschwitz, and I wanted to support the film-maker Diana Groó in telling Regina’s story in the film.”

The documentary marks the first time Weisz has worked on a project alongside her 85-year-old father, George, who is involved as executive producer. The Hungarian-born inventor, who is a double Queen’s Award-winning engineer, tells me he was more than willing to help Groó produce her film after learning the project faced a funding crisis.

“I felt it was very important that the record, the history of this woman should be preserved for posterity,” he explains. “My daughter was very inspired by her story and her humanistic values. Regina was obviously an extremely strong personality and a true leader. I wanted to bring back to life – and to future generations – her existence.”

There were also poignant reasons for George’s involvement in the project. Born in 1929, the retired engineer briefly refers to the “not pleasant” memories he has of growing up in Hungary and how he and his parents, Joir and Kato Weisz, escaped to Britain on the eve of the Second World War.

“I’m acutely aware that I survived, unlike so many of my family and friends.” He adds: “I come from a very eminent, rabbinical family. One of my uncles, a rabbi, was urged by the local gendarmerie to flee.

“‘Come with me,’ he said, ‘you have seven children’. But my uncle said the shepherd goes with the sheep and the lambs [his children], should also stay with them. We later found out one person out of 80 survived from that community.

“I feel very emotional about the Holocaust. It is something that casts a shadow and should not be forgotten – and that is one of the reasons I wanted to do this film.”

Rachel Weisz

Rachel Weisz

Having secured the financing of the project, director Groó was faced with other, more practical challenges in its production. The basis of the documentary comes from a book written about Jonas’ life by Elisa Klapheck, a female rabbi from Frankfurt.

Turning a book into a film is challenging enough, but all the more so considering there is only a single surviving photograph of Jonas, which was taken in 1936. To bolster the visual element of her poetic documentary, Groó diligently trawled through more than 50 hours of archival footage and musical recordings from the Weimar era to create a sense of life in Berlin and central Europe in the years leading up to the Second World War.

She also used a trove of documents Jonas deposited with the Jewish archives (situated in East Germany) prior to her deportation to Theresienstadt. George reveals: “There were about 20,000 papers referring to her ordination, her semicha, her speeches and her correspondences, including letters from the love of her life, Rabbi Josef Norden.

“She knew she probably wasn’t coming back and so deposited these documents, which only came to light again after the Berlin Wall came down.”

The documentary features a selection of these documents, as voiced by Rachel and Groó’s 85-year-old grandmother, who is a survivor of four concentration camps. George was also called upon to lend his vocal talents as Rabbi Leo Baeck, a leader of Progressive Judaism in Germany, who taught Jonas but refused her ordination on the grounds that it would divide German Jewry.

Jonas was eventually ordinated by Rabbi Max Dienemann, head of the Liberal Rabbis’ Association, in 1935. Light-heartedly, George tells me: “The project is a family affair. My stepson was involved in translating the document, my wife worked as the psychological advisor to the film and I did the voiceover for Leo Baeck.

Rachel's father George Weisz

Rachel’s father George Weisz

Rachel jokily said: ‘Dad, are you trying to compete with me?’ to which I replied: ‘Rachel, you are far younger, started much earlier and are far more beautiful!’”

The finished documentary is one that has not only brought the story of Jonas to a wider audience, but has also begun to make an impact with critics around the world. Ahead of its UK premiere next week, Regina has played at 17 international venues and picked up six awards.

George adds: “It’s very touching when you see it performed in different countries and the reactions it evokes. During the first showing in Hungary, a Methodist priest told me he had put a plaque in his church to commemorate Jonas and had the only female rabbi in Budapest to say Kaddish for her.

“It has a message of humanity, which really touches people. Certainly every time I watch it, I look at it with renewed awe.”

• Regina premieres on Wednesday, May 21, 8pm at JW3, Finchley Road, London, followed by a discussion panel including Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner from the Movement for Reform Judaism, and director Diana Groó. Additional screenings until Wednesday, May 28. Details: www.jw3.org.uk