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The official biographer of Winston Churchill, an Emmy Award-winning African American documentary filmmaker and a young Rwandan anti-genocide activist are working together on a Hollywood feature documentary that relives the story of more than a dozen non-Jewish diplomats from around the world who stood up against the Nazis and their own governments to save the lives of over 200,000 European Jews during World War II.
The two-hour film, The Rescuers: Heroes of the Holocaust, tells the personal story of 15 diplomats from 11 countries who risked their careers to help save people they did not even know.
"I keep asking myself, why did they do what they did when they didn't have to?" said Michael King, director and producer of the documentary, in an interview Monday during the filming at Jerusalem's Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial.
"For me as a filmmaker, I want people to be motivated by the goodness of these individuals and really put meaning into the words 'never again,'" he said.
"Our quest is to answer the question, what made these diplomats act as they did?" said prominent British historian Sir Martin Gilbert, who serves as narrator and chief historian in the film. "They were decent human beings who felt a sense of responsibility and were in a position to help."
In an unorthodox approach by an unusual team, the documentary, which is scheduled for release early next year, incorporates the genocides in Rwanda and Darfur to draw parallels between what people did - and did not do - during the Holocaust, and how the modern world has responded to the recent atrocities.
"We didn't want just a story about the Holocaust, but to incorporate past horrors with present horrors - in order to connect to young people - and see if we can use it as a tool to educate, inform and motivate the international community to stop crimes against humanity," King said.
The film, exploring what the Emmy award-winning documentary filmmaker refers to as the "mysteries of goodness," was conceived after the American Jewish philanthropist Joyce D. Mandell told King - a long-time acquaintance and protegÃ© - of a photo exhibit she had seen called "Visas for Life" by Eric Saul, about diplomats who saved Jews during the Holocaust.
King, who had been mulling his next project during a teaching stint at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida, pounced on the story.
With $2 million financial backing for the film from the Mandell Foundation, King enlisted Gilbert, who had written a book on the Righteous Among the Nations, as well as Stephanie Nyombayire, a 22-year-old US-educated Rwandan human rights activist who lost more than 100 family members in her country's genocide. Nyombayire - who rose to international prominence for founding the Genocide Intervention Network NGO, which works to fight the genocide in Darfur - quickly agreed to join the team.
"I see this as another tool for people to stand up," Nyombayire said Monday during her first-ever visit to Israel for the filming. "Individuals can make a difference."
The two-hour film is being filmed throughout Europe, in Jerusalem and in Rwanda and is expected to be completed by March 2010. It is slated to be screened at film festivals around the world next year.
Of the diplomats profiled in the documentary, Sweden's Raoul Wallenberg, who saved tens of thousands of Jews in Budapest, is the most commonly known. Others include US vice consul in Marseilles Hiram Bingham IV; Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz, a Nazi party member and German diplomat in Copenhagen, who alerted the Danish government to the impending deportation of the country's Jews; Frank Foley, the British vice consul in Berlin until 1939; Feng Shan Ho, the Chinese consul-general in Vienna; Angelo Rotta, the papal nuncio in Budapest; Varian Fry, an American journalist and relief official who rescued many leading artists and intellectuals; Turkish consul-general in Marseilles Necdet Kent, who was recently profiled in The Jerusalem Post; Carl Lutz, the Swiss consul in Budapest; Aristides de Sousa Mendes, the Portuguese diplomat in Bordeaux, Giorgio Perlasca, an Italian working in the Spanish embassy in Budapest; Henryk Slawik, a Polish diplomat in Budapest; Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese consul in Kaunus (Kovno), Lithuania; and Jan Zwartendijk, the Dutch consul in Kaunus.
The film also includes mention of Princess Alice of Greece, the paternal grandmother of Britain's Prince Charles, who hid Jews in the royal palace in Athens during the German occupation and withstood interrogations by Nazi officials.
"These are the real heroes. They are not even in our lexicon. How many people know their names?" King asked. "I want people to leave the theater with the question: Would you do it? Would you have taken the risk to save a fellow human being?"