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Three Lies

Filmmaker Pierre Sauvage and the daughter of Holocaust rescuer Peter Bergson talk about people who put their lives at risk to save others

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Peter Bergson conferring with legislators in 1944. (Photoillustration Tablet Magazine. Original photo courtesy of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies. Newspaper clipping Washington Post, 1942.)
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The Rescuer

Varian Fry led the effort to save Hannah Arendt, Marc Chagall, and thousands of other European intellectuals from the Nazis. Why was he forgotten?

Pierre Sauvage has spent his life trying to locate the secrets of human goodness in the horrors of the Holocaust. His most recent film, Not Idly By—Peter Bergson, America and the Holocaust (2012), tells the story of Hillel Kook, nephew of the first chief rabbi of Palestine and a founder of the Irgun, who traveled with the Revisionist Zionist leader Vladimir Jabotinsky to the United States in 1940 to raise money and warn American Jews of the fate that awaited their families in Europe. Adopting the alias Peter Bergson, Kook stayed in New York after Jabotinsky’s death and organized the Bergson Group, which mounted the most sustained and effective effort to save the Jews of Europe in the face of widespread communal apathy, and against the fierce opposition of the leadership of the American Jewish community.

Sauvage is a filmmaker of rare moral perception, whose fixation on the Holocaust is both deeply felt and deeply personal. He grew up in Manhattan and attended the French Lycée, an elite private school. His first film, Weapons of the Spirit (1989), told the story of the Huguenot village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, whose 5,000 inhabitants, led by their pastor, André Trocmé, saved an equal number of Jews from the Nazis. A testament to the goodness of an entire village, the film was also Sauvage’s attempt to understand his own life: At the age of 18, his parents told him that he was a Jew and that he had been hidden in Le Chambon as a baby before he and his parents escaped to America.

The revelation of his origins in a perilous time and place left Sauvage with a bewildering yet intense sense of injury that has greatly enriched his art. His films about rescuers are a means of addressing the foundational mysteries of his life. Who were the people who saved him? Why did they act as they did? Why did his parents act as they did? Over the course of our two-hour conversation, I have a strong perception of a man who is coping in a brave and well-balanced way with the refracted trauma of his childhood, a trauma that was actually repeated twice: In seeking to protect their son from a fate that he had already escaped, his parents condemned him—or the Jewish part of him—to remain a hidden child in the middle of Manhattan, long after the war was over.

The third in Sauvage’s trilogy of rescuer films, the upcoming And Crown Thy Good, tells the story of Varian Fry, the young Harvard-educated classicist who smuggled more than 2,000 of Europe’s leading intellectuals and artists, including Hannah Arendt and Marc Chagall, out of Nazi-occupied France and brought them to America.

Sauvage arrived at the Tablet offices on a cold afternoon in December with Astra Temko, the shy, soft-spoken, and beautiful daughter of Hillel Kook, aka Peter Bergson.

David Samuels: Pierre Sauvage, you make films about people who put their lives at risk to save others: André Trocmé (the pastor of Le Chambon), Peter Bergson, and Varian Fry. Do these men have anything in common, aside from being good?

Pierre Sauvage: People often say that there’s nothing to be learned from them, that their goodness is just a mystery. I hate that characterization. They were all very strong-willed individuals, who responded to their own intellectual and emotional and physical and religious needs. Who could not be dissuaded by nonsense. They were all extremely smart. I don’t sense that any one of them was necessarily the easiest person in the world. I certainly know in the case of Varian Fry that he was downright difficult and ornery.

One of the themes in my Fry documentary is going to be the fact that there are situations and times that are particularly suited for one type of person. The key is to be able to recognize that sort of time.

Another characteristic that they all three had in common—and [turning to Bergson’s daughter, Astra Temko] this might’ve made your father a little difficult, I suspect—is that they didn’t suffer fools gladly.

Astra Temko: I have memories I don’t want to share. (Laughs.)

David Samuels: I think one reason your film about Le Chambon, Weapons of the Spirit, made such an impression on me was that it told a story about an entire community of simple, deeply rooted people who followed the dictates of conscience in an uncomplicated way. I remember seeing the film in the theater and being very struck by the explanation that these were Huguenots and that their connection to the Bible was direct and their own history of persecution in France was very alive to them. Saving Jews was a natural and uncomplicated if also very dangerous thing for them to do. So, is this kind of heroic activity really the product of relentless and exceedingly intelligent individuals? Weapons of the Spirit suggested the opposite.

Pierre Sauvage: It’s always nice to make a film and have someone summarize it so accurately. I actually think that there were, in the broadest terms, two types of rescuers. There were people who had no intention of being rescuers. They got up in the morning, were faced with a particular situation, and responded appropriately. Then there were others who struck me as being more driven characters, out to embody or to prove something. What’s interesting about Le Chambon is that it had both types. Wherever there was a strong Huguenot presence in France, there was rescue—for the reasons you started to identify. It happened that Le Chambon was the most densely Huguenot area in France, so you had the most intensive rescue activity.

David Samuels: There is a criticism of stories about rescuers that goes like this: The Holocaust wasn’t about human goodness. It’s a story about the mass murder of women, men, and children, often with the passive or gleeful help of their neighbors. All those people are dead, and an entire culture was destroyed. You can go to all of those villages in Poland, or to Prague, and you will find only museum-like traces of what once was an incredibly vital world, whose Jewish inhabitants died in horrible ways. Giving people the feel-good stories of a handful of individuals who heroically rescued a few of these people is in the end a profound distortion of a catastrophe, which had no redeeming value.

Pierre Sauvage: Of course there is nothing redemptive about mass murder. But any aspect of any story can be distorted. One can distort the righteous as well. But if faithfully addressed, if honestly approached, every story of rescue is an act of accusation. It’s the opposite of an alibi.

Peter Bergson himself is an incredible example. Here he was, saying all this stuff and doing all this stuff. So we now know that it was possible to say that stuff and to do that stuff. If we don’t have examples of what was possible to do and say, then we will be giving future generations the greatest alibi of all: that it wasn’t possible to do anything.

But I can understand some of the criticism of Schindler’s List, for example. Schindler was actually anti-Nazi, but that didn’t work. Spielberg wanted to tell this more dramatic story. Any dramatist wants a transformation, wants big moments.

David Samuels: I think there is also something inherently comfortable for Jews about the stories of gentile rescuers. We get to say, “Oh, well, look, the goyim were not all bad. We remember the good ones. On the other hand, the rest of you are a bunch of bloody murderers.” And then we get to have these wonderful discussions: Why didn’t they, the world, do more to rescue us while we were being murdered and victimized? It’s a very easy place, I think, for American Jews to rest. However, the story of Peter Bergson, especially for the American Jewish community, is much less comfortable.

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Bob Schwalbaum says:

I was 13 in 1944. a Bar Mitzvah boy.

We heard these “stories”.. and that’s whar they were.. “stories”.. absolutely impossible to beleive,
Whe nthe truth came out.. six million.. it was too late.. get on with life.. build a Jewish state.
Perhaps one can honestly say that the state of Israel was built on thr world’s collective guilt over “the six million”

Rosalie H. Kaye says:

thank you for a wonderful article. I saw the movie about Chambon and the wonderful people- an amazing people. I know know the name of the man who is responsible for making this great movie- I hope that I am able to see the other two he has done. Good interview in this article. thank you.
Rosalie H. Kaye

Lesley Cohen says:

This is a provocative look at the American Jewish response to the extermination of their European brethren. Yes, American Jews, and in particular, their political, cultural, and religious community leadership; did know that there was a systematic policy of brutal persecution, subjugation, expropriation, and murder of the Jews of Europe from 1933 through 1945. They also knew throughout the 1930′s that to survive in independent Poland, outside of a few urban areas, was extremely hard, dangerous and problematic. B’nai Brith published annual reports of the state of World Jewry in the 1930′s that stated that over 75% of the Jews in Poland lived an impoverished life with very little opportunity to work or to be educated. The reports go onto talk about the violence and high death rates of Jews in Poland, related to their cultural identity as Jews. So the violent and endemic nature of anti-Semitism in Poland and the rest of Europe was well documented and widely known. How ever, very little political action was ever pursued! I think the Jews living in the US thought assimilation was the way to assure economic prosperity, and safety in the hostile waters of an America rife with Father Conklin, Henry Ford, a hostile State Department, segregated and exclusionary communities, the KKK and lynchings… However there were some organized attempts to push congress to open the doors to Jewish refugees…though most failed. One that did exist, on a very limited basis involved bringing in to the US, a very limited group of European Jewish children on temporary stay visas. The children had to be 16yrs. or younger, have no living parents, no family in the US, and would be placed with US Jewish families scattered throughout the US. They would not be issued permanent residency and would repatriate This was organized very quietly, so no attention would be drawn to the children or the sponsors or their communities. My paternal grandparents housed two of these children in their home in NE.

History repeats itself today with the anti-Israel American Jews.

A must read article which has particular import to the Jewish experience but also has a universal message to everyone faced with decisions.

This is an extreme example in which decisions to “go along to get along” can to lead to isolation, persecution, and yes, even a Holocost.

The decision by the villagers proves that we must put aside our fear and stand for what is moral.

I thought this was an excellent article. The comments so far express the usual condemnation that “they knew, they knew, why didn’t they do more?” But what about us? How many reports and newspaper articles do we read that reveal dire situations people are facing…and how much are we doing about it? This includes the very reputable reports that top scientists have presented that indicate global warming is going to be increasingly catastrophic. What are we doing about it? Will future generations, if the human race survives, say, “They knew, they knew. Why so little…so late?” I think the best way to follow in the footsteps of men like Varian Fry and Peter Bergson is to do more in our own life and times.

justicegirl says:

Fear is devastating and annihilating. These subjects are rarely addressed in print or on film, so thank-you for this amazing piece. I will see all of Sauvage’s films. Readers should check out Ben Hecht’s Perfidy.

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Three Lies

Filmmaker Pierre Sauvage and the daughter of Holocaust rescuer Peter Bergson talk about people who put their lives at risk to save others