Last week I saw a special presentation courtesy of the Silicon Valley Jewish Film Festival and the Simon Wiesenthal Center. A presentation of the Wiesenthal Center's Moriah Films division's latest work, AGAINST THE TIDE, directed by Richard Trank and narrated by Dustin Hoffman.
AGAINST THE TIDE is the story of Peter Bergson (born Hillel Kook), a Lithuanian who moved to America and worked on Zionist causes. When the first reports came in about the Jews in the Nazi death camps, he dropped everything else and started working full time petitioning the government and leading Jewish groups to engage in rescue efforts. The strange and tragic thing was how much resistance he faced. The standard wisdom was the only goal (and the best way to save the Jews of Europe) was to win the war, and anything that distracted from that was counter-productive. More importantly, there was a definite fear among the mainstream Jewish communities that being too vocal would make WWII "the Jew's war" and weaken support overall. So Bergson and his group launched a populist propaganda campaign, taking out controversial ads in the newspaper, and lining up a surprising amount of followers in the entertainment industry and in congress (most surprising is how many of his best allies were non-Jews).
The movie does a great job of mixing his struggle with the struggle of the Jews in the concentration camps. There are some really amazing stories, mostly courtesy of a group of Polish Jews who worked to document as much as they could in the camps, and buried their records (only 2 of the 3 caches were ever recovered). The deaths are, of course, included. But there's also some amazing stories, like the unbelievable courage and faith required to play a smuggled Shofar in Auschwitz on Rosh Hashanah. Or baking matzoh for Passover (and yes, there's only one oven available, but you do what you must). Or the extraordinary story of Denmark, who rose up en masse and challenged the Nazis, smuggling their small Jewish population by fishing boats to Sweden (which was neutral). In the process they completely exposed the lie that rescue operations don't work.
It's sometimes excruciating to watch. Although you know how it ends, I kept waiting for the one small victory, the small group of Jews that the Bergson saved. Or if only Winston Churchill's order to bomb the tracks leading to Auschwitz hadn't been intercepted and killed (by an American officer, as they were really running the war by then). There are a small number, mere thousands near the end of the war, that rescue efforts saved, and while every life is important you can't help but think too little, too late. Bergson's vindication really comes from history, where A) we can acknowledge that he was right when it was hard to be right, and B) when his "radical" tactics are used by pretty much all activist groups.
As always, Moriah films and Richard Trank make an engaging movie about a near-forgotten aspect of a story that must never be forgotten.