Everyone's life is a story. Not everyone's life story was Herb Gildin's, however. Not remotely.
A trim, soft-spoken man with penetrating eyes, this Huntington native founded a Long Island-based lighting company in the mid-1960s, while he and his wife of 64 years, Gloria, raised two children in North Woodmere and Lloyd Neck.
Gildin died last May at the age of 90. "You would have liked him," Gloria Gildin said recently from Delray Beach, Florida, where she now lives. "He was a listener, not a talker," then laughs: "You can tell I was the talker."
What Gildin hardly ever mentioned, she says, was his childhood. Born in Landsberg, Germany, Gildin and his two sisters, Cele and Margaret, were sent to Sweden in 1938, then a couple years later to Brooklyn. They were among the first of thousands of refugees — many of them children — who found their way to the city from the mid-1930s to the mid-40s with the help of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS). Their parents later joined them in East New York.
A survivor story with a happy outcome — an "Only in America" one, says Gloria — he would still nevertheless not talk about the early days. At least until the film.
The film is called "The Starfish," which began streaming on Amazon Prime and other sites recently. It is Gildin's life story, and yet when he first appears on screen, he seems almost to wince while collecting distant memories.
Tyler Gildin, a 30-year-old filmmaker who grew up in Hewlett and now lives in Manhattan, spent the last couple years of his grandfather's life mining those memories. He explains that "a lot of times he'd say to me, 'is anybody going to care? Why would people beyond our family care?' I could have listened to him for hours and hours, but how to make a piece for the average person who doesn't know him and still watch this so that it resonates. That was a challenge."
Most of us tend to think of World War II survivor stories as a grim testament to the worst crime in history, or perhaps secondary to those others that are testament to the human spirit. Some of those are not conventionally "happy" because they began under such a dark shadow. Nevertheless, they can still be optimistic and hopeful — about heroes who helped others, about the lives saved, then the lives fulfilled.
They're about the future and that oft-called better tomorrow. How could this story not resonate right about now?
Gildin says he wanted to release the film at this moment because "this is such a poignant time. It's about resilience and about an individual in challenging times finding a way forward." Another intention — or at least Herb Gildin's — seems inescapable, too. This is a deeply-felt thank you note.
Befitting the subject, "The Starfish" is modest and understated. Over the 40-minute running time, Herb Gildin hardly ever warms to its subject — his distant past — but he does to those who helped him, like HIAS and the Silows, the Swedish family that took him in (and with whom he reunited nearly 20 years ago).
Brevity doesn't allow much of a deeper exploration of the questions that may occur to viewers. For example, how unique was the Gildin story? "It wasn't unusual but it was lucky because tragically thousands [of children] didn't leave," says Thorin Tritter, programming director for the Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center of Nassau County in Glen Cove.
Tritter says that HIAS helped about 30,000 German Jewish refugees get to New York from about 1934 to 1946. "We know if you were a survivor and came to the city, there's a good chance you'd settle out here and start raising your family. But as to exact numbers on Long Island, we don't know."
Gloria Gildin says she doesn't know of any other HIAS refugees either, nor did her husband. His early life "was so difficult for such a long period of time that he didn't want to go back" in his memory. After they were married and "we bought the house in North Woodmere, I thought, 'oh my God!' I was so happy, and things progressed from there. We never took for granted what life got us. We were always so grateful — grateful for everything."
Herb Gildin did see the film before his death and may well have become its biggest fan. "It is uplifting," she says, "and it shows you how there are people in this world who do things you could never imagine."
Also how there are other people who make that possible. The "starfish" of the title refers to the famous Loren Eiseley story that has been adapted to many occasions. Gildin told his own version at a Silow family reunion in 2001.
An old man is walking on a beach strewed with starfish, when he comes upon a young boy throwing each one back into the surf. But why, the old man wondered?
"If I don't throw them back they will die," the boy said.
With weary resignation, the man thus explained the obvious — miles of beach, millions of starfish. "You can't possibly make a difference."
The boy then tosses another one into the surf. "I made a difference for that one."
Gray head bowed with a roomful of elderly Swedish friends awaiting a punchline, Gildin then gave them one.
"I guess I am the starfish."