Cresting the waves

Alan Rosenthal talks about his nuts-and-bolts documentary on the unsung heroes who tried to bring European Jews to Palestine.

Just when you think you've heard them all, someone comes up with another intriguing angle on a well-trodden area of interest. British-born Jerusalemite Alan Rosenthal's Waves of Freedom casts some welcome light on the contribution of (mostly Jewish) American volunteers in helping thousands of "illegal" Jewish immigrants come to Palestine between the end of 1946 and early 1948. Waves of Freedom, which screens today as part of the Jerusalem Film Festival, focuses on just one of the overcrowded, largely dilapidated and barely seaworthy craft that sought to smuggle Jews into the Holy Land. The Tradewinds set sail from Miami in February 1947. After taking a circuitous route and encountering all manner of trial and tribulation, and a few comic moments in between, the ship eventually got agonizingly close to the shores of Palestine by June of that year. With 60th anniversary celebrations only just behind us, it seems fitting that this year's Jerusalem Film Festival should not only feature the feted epic Exodus, but also a nuts-and-bolts documentary about some of the unsung heroes who gave their all - and for no monetary gain - to try to bring hundreds of World War II-traumatized European Jews to Palestine. While appreciative of the chance to show his film at the festival, Rosenthal feels the two works might have had a bigger impact had they enjoyed closer slots in the festival schedule. "Considering the importance of the story of Waves of Freedom, and the effort it took to make it, it would have been nice to show it and Exodus [which is being screened at 9:45 p.m. on July 16] sequentially," he says. "Hopefully people will go to see them both, and that should give them a fresh angle on the whole story of the illegal immigration." The idea for Waves of Freedom was sparked around 20 years ago when Rosenthal came across a book about the smuggling of Jews into Palestine. "I think it was called The Secret Seas. It outlined the whole of this secret fleet coming to Palestine between 1945 and 1947, and all the efforts to break the British embargo. I was absolutely fascinated by it. I kept it in the back of my mind for many years, and fancied that, one day, I would like to make a film about it." As is generally the case with documentary filmmaking, the road to the silver screen is strewn with multiple grant applications and petitioning various television companies, charity foundations and philanthropists for the funds to finance the project. It took several years to get the necessary greenbacks in place, but Rosenthal and co-producer Nissim Mossek eventually began searching for suitable archival footage and interviewees for the film. The film's testimonies are colorful, insightful and thoroughly entertaining as they retell the experiences they had before, during and after the Waves of Freedom escapade. As a seasoned professional - he has over 50 films to his credit, helped to film the Eichmann trials in 1961 and was instrumental in setting up IBA television in the late Sixties - Rosenthal wanted to offer as rounded a portrayal as possible of what it took to get The Tradewinds and its packed human cargo to this part of the world. "I wanted to get as many aspects of the story in as possible," he says, "so I tried to get some of the members of the Palestine Patrol [the Royal Navy unit charged with preventing illegal immigration into Palestine] to tell their side of the events." Waves of Freedom duly shows interviews with several former sailors, including a rear admiral, as well as a highly colorful roster of some of those who volunteered their naval expertise and energies to getting the 1,500 Jews aboard The Tradewinds. Of the surviving volunteers, Murray Greenfield and Howard Katz will attend today's screening as well as Hedva and Reuven Gil, who were among the passengers, and nonagenarian Ralph Goldman, who was the Hagana officer responsible for vetting the volunteers in the US and "making sure no spies or other undesirables," as Rosenthal put it, volunteered for the project. But just why did all those young Americans risk life and limb to bring survivors of the Holocaust to the Jewish homeland? "Some were running away from unhappy marriages, others were looking for adventure and some simply wanted to help these poor people get away from Europe, the scene of their worst trauma, to their own country," Rosenthal explains, adding that the volunteers went through something of an epiphany along the way. "It was the first time any of them had come face-to-face with Holocaust survivors," he continues. "It was only when the passengers boarded the ship in Italy that they [volunteers] fully realized what they were really involved in. Murray Greenfield told me he suddenly thought that his parents could so easily have been caught up by the Holocaust, and he might have been born in Poland rather than in the States. It was at that moment that the significance of the Holocaust and trying to establish the State of Israel really struck them." Waves of Freedom is showing at 1:30 p.m. today at the Begin Heritage Center.