Focusing on a critical, relatively unknown chapter in modern Jewish history, “The Long Way Home” is a landmark documentary about the torturous, humiliating plight of Jewish refugees who survived the Holocaust. Though grounded in the specific historical period of post-WWII, this momentous docu provides important insights and relevant lessons for contempo political refugees. Despite a somewhat conventional style, pic deserves to be seen on the bigscreen before it reaches its more natural habitats of PBS, cable and educational institutions.
For many Jews, the horrendous experience of the Holocaust did not end in 1945. Combining never-before-seen archival footage and stills and new interviews with survivors as well as important politicians, “The Long Way Home” sheds light on a shameful chapter in history — namely, how the community of nations, including Britain and the United States, ignored the predicament of tens of thousands of Jewish refugees from 1945 to 1948, when the state of Israel was established and recognized by the U.N
In May 1945, Germany was defeated by the Allies and the war in Europe was officially terminated. American, British and Russian soldiers proudly liberated the Nazi concentration camps in Central and Eastern Europe. Thousands of starving, near-dead Jewish survivors were freed from Nazi persecution, but official liberation provided them with little solace. Many Jews were so physically and emotionally ill that they required months of convalescence; some died.
Those Jews who tried to return to their home countries were met with anti-Semitism and threats of physical violence. When five Jews were murdered in a Lithuanian village outside Vilna, Polish notes found in their pockets stated, “This will be the fate of all surviving Jews.”
American and British authorities set up Displaced Persons Camps to house the refugees, often on the sites of former German death camps. Assigned to camps according to their country of origin, the Jews were mixed in with other displaced people, and found themselves sharing a roof with Nazi sympathizers, collaborators and murderers. At the same time, in what must be one of history’s greatest ironies, German nationals were repatriated. No wonder a popular saying among the era’s refugees was “Better to be a conquered German than a liberated Jew.”
The first leaders to raise awareness of the survivors’ needs were American Army chaplains, such as Rabbi Abraham Klausner, who in a new interview recalls how he helped organize the DPC and compile lists of survivors. Klausner and other witnesses disclose how they fought the policies of influential leaders, which gave priority to a speedy economic recovery and reconstruction of postwar Germany and neglected the Jewish issue.
The other initiative to help European survivors came from various Jewish organizations in Palestine. Members of the Jewish Brigade, which had fought with the British, stayed in Europe to search out family members and fought British restrictions on Jewish emigration to Palestine. One of docu’s most exciting segments is devoted to the bricha, (Hebrew word for “flight”), a concerted effort to help thousands of Jews reach Palestine illegally, in defiance of the Western world’s prohibitions. The tragic fate of the Exodus, familiar from Leon Uris’ book and Otto Preminger’s movie, gets fresh treatment through eyewitnesses who were aboard the ill-fated ship in 1947.
It’s practically impossible to do justice to the rich historical tapestry that’s at the center of “The Long Way Home,” a meticulously researched and detailed film that chronicles tumultuous events almost month by month. Among the many highlights is a discussion of how British Prime Minister Clement Atlee was led to side with the Arab point of view. His nation’s economy ravaged by war and a crumbling empire, he acted on the need to maintain a free flow of oil from the Middle East.
At the same time, docu doesn’t overlook the courageous efforts of those who supported the survivors, such as American volunteers who risked their personal safety to aid in the illegal emigration to Palestine. One unsung hero is Clark Clifford, then adviser to President Truman, who eventually recommended the foundation of an independent state of Israel.
Writer-director Mark Jonathan Harris deserves praise for this epic documentary, though his treatment of exciting and revelatory footage is often too conventional, including old-fashioned use of narration (by Morgan Freeman), impersonated voices of celebrities and rather sentimental music, composed and conducted by Lee Holdridge. The filmmakers should prepare themselves for criticism from pro-Palestinian factions for undermining the Arabs’ standpoint, though in their defense, docu’s goal is to reconstruct the Jewish experience.