Given the events in Kosovo, Martin Ostrow’s “America and the Holocaust: Deceit and Indifference” seems particularly relevant these days, but of course this shameful story of American anti-Semitism and international indifference toward rescuing Europe’s imperiled Jews is a tale that bears repeating regardless.
Fate of 6 million is told through the story of two, the stranded German Jewish parents of teenage refugee Kurt Klein. By 1937, Kurt and his brother and sister are in America, working to get their parents here, too. But anti-Semitism, anti-immigrant sentiments, Middle East oil politics, State Department denials and purposeful bureaucratic delays foretell no family reunion.
Filmmaker Ostrow employs a deft hand with this unnerving subject. He shows how Allied heavy bombers attacked an I.G. Farben fuel factory five miles from Auschwitz but never received orders to bomb the death camp. (Grainy black-and-white footage shot from a bomber show how its ordnance literally flew over Auschwitz on its way to the Farben plant.)
This film makes very effective use of freeze frame. The bomber’s view of the barracks gives viewers a rare glimpse of the camp from the sky, rather than the usual ground-based photos. Equally disturbing is the freeze frame of President Franklin Roosevelt’s handwriting on a note, requesting his position on the much-debated 1939 congressional bill to rescue 20,000 German and Austrian Jewish children: “File, no action. FDR.” Footage then cuts to 1940, and a ship of singing English children arriving here under government protection.
When Congress, the State Department and Roosevelt failed those 20,000 despite confirmed reports that their co-religionists were being massacred, American Jews appealed directly to fellow citizens. The 1943 wartime pageant “We Shall Never Die” featured actress Sylvia Sydney proclaiming, “Here the Germans turned machine guns on us and killed us all. Remember us.”
It was Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, Rep. Will Rogers Jr. and a small but determined team of Treasury Department staffers who, in 1944, pushed Roosevelt into creating the War Refugee Board, which helped save about 200,000 Jews and assisted Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg rescue thousands of Hungarian Jews.
The 90-minute docu concludes with a too-little-too-late view of wartime America. One historian states that because America refused to rescue thousands of other Jews, the country could not rescue its own conscience.
Unfortunately, Ostrow’s documentary endures a flaw of its own making, allowing Sheldon Mirowitz’s music too much license. His booming bass drums, tinkling piano and endless sobbing violin solos encroach on people and events best left alone. It is silence, not sentimental strains, that should speak here. Actor Hal Linden’s narration, on the other hand, is proper and respectful.