Filmmaker Pierre Sauvage and the daughter of Holocaust rescuer Peter Bergson talk about people who put their lives at risk to save others
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.
Alison Klayman went to China and found her big break. The documentary she made there, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, premiered at Sundance.