Literature of the Holocaust
maintained by Al Filreis

[From the International Herald Tribune of January 4, 1995]

Marek Halter's Search for the 'Righteous' of Nazi Europe

by Alan Riding

[PARIS]. Long before "Schindler's List" reached the screen, Marek Halter, a French writer descended from Polish Jews, became obsessed with the idea of demonstrating that even at the darkest moments of the Holocaust, the Jews trapped in Nazi-run Europe were not without friends.

"I could never accept the notion that the whole world was against the Jews," hexplained. "I could not accept philosophically that there was no good, no generosity, left in the world. To do so would mean living inside a moral or existentialist bunker, and that was too disagreeable."

So four years ago, he began his own search for "the righteous," as he puts it: gentiles who risked their lives to protect Jews during World War II. He wanted to pay tribute to their bravery. Above all, he wanted to ask, "Why did you save Jews?"

The result, a 160-minute documentary called "Tzedek: The Righteous," has just been released in France. Through the simple and often emotional testimonies of 36 men and women in 14 countries, Halter slowly builds his case: Good can survive even in the most evil of circumstances.

His evidence is the reasons these "righteous" gave for saving Jews: "because iwas the right thing to do"; "because I would have been ashamed if I had not doneso"; "because I am a Christian"; "because the priest said we should," or "what would I have told my children?"

"This is different from Otto Schindler," Halter said recently, referring to thcentral figure of Steven Spielberg's movie "Schindler's List." "In my view, Schindler was a hero, but he was not a righteous. He fought evil with the methods of evil, a bit like in a western. But the behavior of the righteous is one that denies evil."

Halter's film - "tzedek" means "justice" or "charity" in Hebrew - is to be shown at the Berlin Film Festival in February, and has so far been sold to distributors in Italy, Canada and Britain.

Halter, who was born in Warsaw in 1936, had a personal interest in the questioof "the righteous." His family escaped the Warsaw ghetto and fled to Russia in 1941 with the help of two Polish Catholics. But he has already discovered that the premise of his film is controversial.

"After a special showing in Israel, some Jews said it was too early to talk about good when the debate about evil was not yet exhausted," the burly and bearded Halter said in an interview.

In France, because he included eight French people who saved Jews, he heard complaints that he was somehow trying to rehabilitate the Vichy regime.

He said he wanted to show good as a reaffirmation of his belief in humanity. And he wanted the testimonies to act as a mirror that would lead filmgoers to question themselves.

Halter has long worked for human rights and justice in France and elsewhere. But the central theme of his books is memory: memory of his own family and of the Jewish people and also of the Holocaust.

Although about 11,000 "righteous" are honored at the Yad Vashem Memorial in Jerusalem, for the film Halter wanted the spontaneity of those who had never been asked, "Why did you save Jews?"

He and his wife, Clara, traced some 200 "saviors" and collected 40 hours of videotape and 1,000 pages of interviews. "After verifying their stories, we picked 42 people," Halter said. "But it was then that I remembered the Talmudic tradition that each generation must produce 36 'righteous' for the world to continue."

In the film, which cost $4 million to make and took one year to shoot and another year to edit, Halter is both narrator and interviewer. Appropriately, hestarts in Warsaw with his childhood memories of the Nazi occupation in September1939 and his family's eventual flight.

Immediately, he moves to Sarajevo, as if to underline the topicality of his subject. There he met Zaneiba Hardaga, 74, a Muslim woman who helped save two Jewish families and whose father was executed by the Nazis for hiding another Jewish family. Asked if she was ever afraid, she replied: "Humanity does not know fear." IRENA Sendler, a social worker in Warsaw before the war, organized a network that saved some 2,500 Jewish children. She was arrested and condemned to death but was rescued by Resistance fighters. Today she claims no credit for her actions. "I could have done more," she said. "This regret will follow me to my death."

In France, Halter found farmers, priests and even two survivors of a group of seven policemen in Nancy who variously hid Jews, helped them escape to Switzerland or warned them of roundups. "This doesn't make Vichy look good," thewriter said. "The police in Nancy show that the rest of the French police had noexcuse for helping the Nazis."

He noted that if 450,000 to 500,000 Jews survived World War II in German-occupied Europe, including 280,000 in France, "it was because in one way or other they were protected by someone." Yet it is to the motivation of the protectors that he constantly returns.

At the age of 27, named by the Nazis to run an oil company in Poland, Berthold Beitz hired 800 Jews who survived the war. Beitz, who is now 81 and vice president of the Krupp Foundation, set up by the German industrial conglomerate to benefit the arts, said he did it "for humanity." And he added softly, "As I look back, I can now say that I did something in my life."

Search for a (single) word:

http://writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/Holocaust/schindler010595.html - - - Last modified: Friday, 06-Aug-2004 09:15:55 EDT