“The time is always right to do what is right” — Martin Luther King, Jr.
May is Jewish American Heritage Month, and one great way to honor it is to see the movie, “The Rescuers,” by award-winning filmmaker Michael King. It is about 13 Holocaust heroes, most of whom you’ve never heard of. They all risked their lives to help tens of thousands of Jews flee to safety during and before World War II. It stars anti-genocide activist Stephanie Nyombayire, who lost 100 members of her family in the Rwandan Genocide of the 1990s, and renowned Holocaust historian Sir Martin Gilbert.
The interesting pair traveled across 15 countries and three continents to interview Holocaust survivors and descendants of the diplomats who’d saved them. Nyombayire is the co-founder of the Genocide Intervention Network, the largest activist organization in America dedicated to preventing and ending genocide and mass atrocities worldwide. Her motivation to research history is to try to understand what should be done now to stop the ongoing genocide in Darfur and other places around the world.
British historian Gilbert, the author of 88 books including “The Holocaust: The Jewish Tragedy,” leads the two as they embark on their adventure. In addition to beautiful scenery and informative interviews, the film uses old footage of Adolf Hitler and his atrocities.
Many times throughout the film, I felt a mournful cry stuck in my throat. At times I gave in to tears, which is rare for me. I’m a tough native New Yorker and was raised on countless rage-filled stories of the Holocaust from my dad, an army captain in WWII. He was at the Dachau concentration camp the day the prisoners were freed. He described the smell of burnt human flesh and how he and the other soldiers watched the pencil-thin, starved and naked prisoners beat the German guards to death. All of my family members except my grandparents were killed in the German death camps in Poland and Russia.
The survivors featured in the film are Sylvia Smoller, Michael Kaufman, Inge Sampson and her son Michael Sampson, the brothers Leo and Gustav Goldberger, brothers Bernard and Elliot Turiel, Berl Schor and Peter Vagi.
The rescuers are also a fascinating cast of characters. Selahattin Ulkumen of Turkey was a Muslim diplomat and the official Turkish Consul on the Greek island of Rhodes. He provided documents that saved Jews from the Nazis and ultimately is responsible for their generations of children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. He lost his wife in an attack by a German Air Force plane.
Aristides de Sousa Mendes of Portugal was the diplomat who served as Portuguese Consul-General in Bordeaux, France, in 1940. He defied the orders of his government and issued thousands of transit visas to allow Jews to escape France and travel through Spain to Portugal. After the war, his government punished him for disobeying orders. Mendes sacrificed his career and his family’s livelihood and was forced into abject poverty.
British Captain Frank Foley went to Berlin as a spy for the British Secret Intelligence Service in the 1920s and remained there when Hitler came to power. His cover was to serve as the Passport Control Officer in Berlin, which became a primary focus as he sought to ensure that Jews could get out of Nazi Germany before they were killed. More than 10,000 peoples’ lives were saved by his courage.
German Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz is the most surprising hero because he was a member of the Nazi Party. He was the German Attaché in Copenhagen, Denmark, who was assigned to ship the country’s Jews to Germany. Duckwitz organized the rescue of 7,200 people through the Swedish Prime Minister who agreed to take in the Danish Jews.
American Hiram Bingham IV served as vice consul at the American Consulate in Marseille, France, and was in charge of American interests in the French port city. Bingham provided Jewish refugees with visas to cross over into neutral Spain and safety from Nazis. It is estimated that he, along with Varian Fry, saved tens of thousands of people.
Fry, also an American, first witnessed Nazi atrocities as a journalist and later returned to Marseille on behalf of the Emergency Rescue Committee. With the help of Bingham and others, Fry enabled Jews to flee German-controlled France. It is estimated that Fry and Bingham saved tens of thousands of people.
Chiune Sugihara of Japan issued visas allowing Jews to travel across European Russia and Siberia to Japan. He was responsible for saving several thousand Polish Jews who had fled to Lithuania. He acted against the specific instructions of his government, issued the visas and 3,000 people were saved. As a result of his work, he was dismissed from the foreign office, sacrificed his pension and was forced to take on menial jobs to support his family.
Jan Zwartendijk of Holland served as the Director of Lithuanian Operations for the Phillips Company and had consular powers in Kaunas, Lithuania, from the Dutch government. He made visas available for Polish Jews looking to escape to Dutch-controlled Curaçau.
Henryk Slawik of Poland issued Polish diplomatic documents meant for Christians or Aryans to Polish Jews, which allowed them to flee to freedom. He saved more than 5,000 Jews. Slawik refused to testify against Jozsef Antall, a colleague from the Ministry of Internal Affairs, who performed heroic rescue work for refugees. Slawik was executed by the Germans for his refusal to betray Antall.
Carl Lutz of Switzerland joined with other diplomats to provide protective documents that helped save tens of thousands of Jews in Budapest, Hungary.
Raoul Wallenberg of Sweden, the First Secretary for the Swedish government in Budapest, participated in a collective diplomatic effort that helped save 120,000 Jews in Budapest.
Angelo Rotta, an Italian Catholic bishop, helped save 25,000 Jews by bringing together diplomats to represent numerous European countries to provide protective documents for an entire neighborhood, which was set up specially by the diplomats to protect 25,000 Jews in Budapest.
Italian businessman Giorgio Perlasca assumed the duties of the Spanish diplomat in Budapest and joined with other diplomats to provide protective documents that helped save tens of thousands of Jews in the Hungarian capital.
Princess Alice was the great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria of Britain, Empress of India, wife of Prince Andrew of Greece and grandmother to His Royal Highness Charles, The Prince of Wales. The princess provided refuge to the Cohen family of Athens, hiding them from the Nazis in her palace in the capital city.
“The Rescuers” is now available on iTunes and VOD. 105 minutes.
Watch the trailer:
Dorri Olds is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine.