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03.18.09

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Phaedra

PROTEST MOVEMENT: In the 1940s, some Jewish veterans and Orthodox rabbis marched on Washington, D.C.

Failure to Act

Documentary 'Against the Tide' shows how Americans stalled when the Holocaust threatened

By Richard von Busack


UP UNTIL its last 10 minutes, the documentary Against the Tide, showing March 26 at a special Silicon Valley Jewish Film Festival screening, bravely traces forgotten history and rattles the skeleton in a couple of famous men's closets. Rabbi Stephen Wise and Franklin Roosevelt turn out to have put the brakes on the efforts to save European Jewry from the Nazis. The central figure in the film is Peter Bergson, a firebrand whose direct appeal to the public embarrassed the assimilated, low-profile Jews of 1940s America. These community leaders feared the public would rephrase World War II as a Jewish invention. Stung by Bergson's end-runs around the Establishment, Wise supposedly described Bergson as "worse than Hitler," on the grounds that Hitler was fomenting anti-Semitism only in Europe but Bergson's pushiness was stirring it up in America.Roosevelt's cabinet prevaricated as ghetto after European ghetto was liquidated. Breckinridge Long, the bigoted and corrupt bureaucrat in charge of the State Department's visa department, feared an influx of Jewish radicals. Long did what he could to stall immigration. Even after the Nazi crimes gradually became public knowledge, the progress to rescue the Jews didn't accelerate. Churchill pressured the Allies to bomb the railways to the concentration camps, but the policy was nixed by FDR's administration. Meanwhile, smuggled-out news of the Holocaust only made it to page 10 of The New York Times. Max Frankel, former editor, claims the reason was that publisher Arthur Sulzberger was "skittish" about being Jewish—so much for the primacy of the Jewish-owned media. And yet the Times accepted the ads co-written by Bergson, who partnered with famed studio-era scriptwriter Ben Hecht. In many ads, Ben Hecht and Bergson raised the cry "Action not Pity!" Bergson and Hecht rallied activist stars like Paul Muni and Edward G. Robinson for public pageants that drew thousands of attendees.

The history is freshly presented. Richard Trank's documentary contrasts Bergson's life with the personal histories of survivors and those who were destroyed. Anne Frank's family was among those officially denied entry to the United States unless they could find an American consulate in Switzerland or Portugal, which of course meant illegally crossing Occupied Europe.

From Against the Tide, one gets the impression that anti-Semitism was the main reason for American isolationism. There was a riot of Jew-hatred in prewar America. But there were other parties—from pacifists to Communists—who wanted no part of a second European war. Bergson's inconveniencing of the comfortable is fondly remembered. The film's upbeat ending takes place in modern-day Israel. Children parade in the streets of Jerusalem, and the descendents of Holocaust survivors raise their voices against the killings in Darfur. It's a strange angle to take on Israel today. Against the Tide lambastes those who keep silent, yet the plight of the Palestinians left out of this happy picture speaks rather loudly.


Movie Times AGAINST THE TIDE (Unrated), a documentary by Richard Trank, plays March 26 at 7pm at Camera 7 in Campbell. Trank and Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, will talk. See www.svjff.org or call 800.838.3006.


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