What responsibility do I bear for my fellow man? Hoary as the parable of Good Samaritan and fresh as Ronald Reagan's professions about tithing, it is never a comfortable question. Documentary filmmaker Laurence Jarvik spent three years finding out how leaders of the American government and the American Jewish community answered the question during the Holocaust.
His 90-minute film "Who Shall Live and Who Shall Die" aches with anger at the inadequacy of their response.
As Jarvik sees it, these men singly and collectively averted their eyes and shuffled their feet as millions of European Jews were marched into showers of poison gas. Political leaders focused on winning the war, not easing immigration restrictions. Religious leaders murmured warnings that too much agitating for ways to save European Jews could revive not-so-latent American anti-Semitism.
The charge of wilful neglect against the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt is nothing new. But the film's indictment of the wartime American Jewish establishment is startling. It damns men like Stephen Wise, one of the most prominent Jewish leaders of his generation, for being long on words and short on actions.
At the same time it sanctifies the passions and perceptive paranoia of men like Peter Bergson. With justification -- Bergson was right.
Bergson was a Palestinian Jew, an aide in Menachem Begin's Jewish underground who came to the United States and helped found the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe. His views are the core of the film's anger and the source of its momentum. "Jewish unity didn't hold," he says. "Ten thousand Jews a day were being killed in Europe while the Jews of the United States . . . were living their lives."
Later flinging aside the worries of prominent American Jews, he proclaims that no Jew was ever killed in America because of anti-Semitism. ". . . American Jewish leaders were saying, 'We're afraid they won't let us get into the Harvard Club so we'll let 10,000 Jews stay in Europe.' "
The film was shown Wednesday in a small Senate hearing room under the sponsorship of Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.). It will be shown next week during the Berlin Film Festival; its only public showing in the United States is in Los Angeles, though it may yet be seen again in Washington because of its unforgiving message and the controversy it likely will create.
Pell is shown in the film's opening moments decrying the failure of the U.S. government to bend its immigration policies to the task of saving doomed European Jews. "Much more could have been done," he says.
More was done than is often remembered as the film reminds us. There was the 1943 march that brought 500 rabbis to the Capitol steps, the pageant "We Shall Never Die" created by Ben Hecht. And later the surreptitious, abortive 1944 negotiations for a swap with the Nazis -- Jews for trucks. And there was always the work of Bergson and his friends, work that was denounced by better-known Jewish leaders.
Some of these men and their philosophical heirs are given plenty of time to tell their version of events on film, but the medium itself works against a man like Nahum Goldmann of the World Jewish Congress. Juxtaposed against Bergson's fire, which plays so well on film, Goldmann is fighting an unequal battle. His low-key, folksy tone inadvertently seems to belittle the horror he witnessed and fought. In this collision of hindsight Bergson fares far better.
Jarvik makes no pretense at neutrality. He has little patience for ambiguity as he cuts back and forth from the past to the present. Spinning one after the other are newsreel shots of battles, of Hitler in the Reichstag, of Roosevelt rallying the nation to war, of Nazi victims' limbs protruding from unkempt graves, of the refugee ship turned away from American ports and returned to Germany, of the aging faces of men and women who watched the horror both from afar and nearby.
In some ways Jarvik gets too involved in his subject, the film's helter-skelter pace does not serve the needs of an audience less enmeshed in that era than himself. One gets up after 90 minutes knowing too little about too much.
But even its occasional opacity and one-sidedness fail to lessen the film's power. Perhaps most provocative are shots not of the dead but of the living. Closing scenes show survivors reunited with American relatives. The tearful scenes leave behind them the looming vision of all the reunions that might have been.