Pierre Sauvage director 248 88.
(photo credit: Rebecca Sauvage)
"American Jews and the American Jewish community live with big taboos when it comes to what was happening during the years that the Jews were massacred in World War II," says director Pierre Sauvage, explaining why he made the documentary Not Idly By - Peter Bergson, America and the Holocaust. The film will have its world premiere at the Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival at the Jerusalem Cinematheque on December 13. The 11th Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival runs from December 12-18 and will present 50 films of Jewish interest.
The fascinating story of Peter Bergson (born Hillel Kook in Palestine, a nephew of Rabbi Kook), who spearheaded a campaign in the United States to stop the slaughter of European Jews, has never been told in such depth. Bergson was considered an enormously controversial, even a dangerous figure, by the American Jewish leadership of the time. These leaders preferred to keep a low profile, fearing that any call for the Roosevelt administration to take action would lead to anti-Semitism and might hurt public support for the war. Bergson's strategy for getting out the word included tactics that are now standard practice for political activists: taking out big and provocative ads in newspapers, galvanizing Hollywood royalty (including Bergson's partner in his mission, writer Ben Hecht), and marching on Washington.
"We've been living with the notion that we didn't know what was going on, and, had we known, there was nothing we could have done," says Sauvage. "But of course, people did know about it. Nothing could have stopped the Holocaust. But could it have been slowed down, impeded? Yes."
Although in later years, the Roosevelt administration was criticized for not making it easier for Jewish refugees to come to America and for not making stopping the Holocaust a war aim, Sauvage feels there is more to the story.
"If American Jews did not put pressure on the government to take these actions, then there's a limit to how much blame one can put on Roosevelt, especially when his Jewish advisors weren't putting pressure on him. If the American Jews had had leadership that was more proactive on this issue, who knows what could have been done?"
PERHAPS NOTHING brings home the point about this more intensely than the statistic Sauvage includes in the film, that out of the 24,000 front-page stories on World War II that the Jewish-owned New York Times ran during the war, only 26 were concerned with the killing of Jews.
Still, Sauvage insists: "I'm not interested in pointing a finger at the older generation. I don't know that we would act any better today." He acknowledges that "there was an enormous amount of anti-Semitism in America in those days and the American Jews genuinely felt protected by Roosevelt."
That said, he adds, "What surprised me the most is that the truth of that experience is even more challenging than I had realized... People say that there was a lot of infighting among the Jewish community, but that's not really the case. They were all united in not making waves."
Except for Bergson and his supporters. "I know why I found him a riveting figure. I was raised with taboos," says Sauvage. Born in 1944 in Le Chambon, a French village with 5,000 inhabitants who saved 5,000 Jews, among them his family, Sauvage grew up ignorant of his heritage. "My parents kept the fact that I was Jewish from me until I was 18," he says.
Learning the dramatic story of Le Chambon inspired Sauvage to make the documentary, Weapons of Spirit, which will be shown in a retrospective tribute to his work at the Jerusalem Cinematheque on December 10. His film, Yiddish: The Mother Tongue, will be screened on December 9.
Sauvage is currently working on a documentary on another iconoclast who tried to stop the Holocaust, Varian Fry, And Crown Thy Good: Varian Fry in Marseille, excerpts from which will be screened along with the Peter Bergson documentary. "Fry was a New York intellectual who led the most successful private American rescue effort during the Nazi era," says Sauvage.
Speaking about his recent films, Sauvage says: "There will be some concern along the lines of, Is this good for the Jews? What's good for the Jews is self-knowledge... If you live with lies you won't be able to make choices."
For more information and to order tickets, go to the festival Website at www.jer-cin.org.il. Sauvage, along with Bergson's daughter and widow, will be present at the screening.