“When history looks back, I want people to know the Nazis weren’t able to kill millions of people and get away with it.”
Those words were spoken by Simon Wiesenthal. Wiesenthal was an architect living in Poland in the 1930’s. He was witness to the systematic persecution, isolation and eventual slaughter of the Jewish population of which he was a member when Germany’s Nazi troops invaded Poland. He and his family ended up in a concentration camp and into forced labor. When Hitler instituted his “Final Solution” most of his family members were killed. He barely survived after an unsuccessful escape attempt; he would have surely been killed if not for a sudden turn in the Nazi forces. He and his wife managed to survive the Holocaust.
After the war Wiesenthal spent his time gathering evidence for the Allied troops on the death camp personnel. Little did he know it would become a career. Over his life he helped to bring over 1100 Nazi war criminals to justice.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center has carried on his legacy. The Center spearheads educational programs and works to make sure that this dark time in human history is never forgotten. One of the ways in which they do this is through the many documentaries they have produced over the years. The Simon Wiesenthal Collection captures 11 of those documentaries in one 11-disc set. Here are the films you will find in that collection:
The film is narrated by Orson Wells and Elizabeth Taylor with an introduction by Simon Wiesenthal himself. It was directed by Arnold Schwartzman.
The film begins with a brief history of Jewish settlement in Europe. We soon turn to the subject of anti-Jewish attitudes as they developed across the continent. Of course, the bulk of the film’s focus is on a history of the Nazi movement to exterminate Jews completely.
As with most of these films, the story is told through a wide variety of elements. There is plenty of vintage footage, much of it unseen before. We’re not talking the standard WWII material that most of us have seen a hundred times. This footage is rather heart-wrenching and doesn’t shy away from the sheer brutality of the Holocaust. You also have stills and artistic renderings to compliment the narrative. Much of the material comes from testimonials or letters written by those who suffered through the events.
The film is absolutely moving but tends to hurt itself with animated artistic flourishes and split-screen images that merely distract the viewer from the material itself. Schwartzman feels he needs to entertain or keep the viewer’s attention. He should have trusted that the material itself is too compelling to look away.
Echoes That Remain (1991)
The film is narrated by Martin Landau and Miriam Margoyles. This is also directed by Arnold Schwartzman.
This film documents the life of the Jews in the Shtetl, which is a small village or community. There were about 10,000 of these communities throughout Europe before the arrival of the Nazi’s. We get glimpses of what daily life was like for these people from the parables that were handed down to teach the culture of the people. We get glimpses of tradecraft and celebrations that lifted the lives of these relatively poor people.
The film is peppered with many stories and anecdotes that add a personal touch to the vintage footage and stills provided. We get a look at what these places look like today. For the most part, they are long gone, and overgrown cemeteries bear the only remaining traces of the lives that once made these places their home.
This film offers a pleasant counter to the horrors of the Holocaust itself. This feature is lighter in tone and more whimsical. The sadness lies in the loss of innocence and less on the gruesome realities that caused such loss. It serves as a wonderful balance that I think is essential in this kind of collection. It celebrates a particular history that no longer exists.
The film is narrated by Sir Ben Kingsley with the additional voices of Miriam Margoyles, Patrick Stewart, Jean Boht and Whoopi Goldberg. It is once again directed by Arnold Schwartzman.
This film mostly deals with the German invasion and occupation of Paris. We get intimate glimpses of what daily life was like for the occupied citizens of the city. Again there is plenty of vintage footage and stills. We get to see some of the resistance and Germany’s response to it. The focus balanced by a look at the evolution of American involvement in WWII. From neutrality to Lend-Lease to full-scale participation, the film does a good job of chronicling the changing attitudes of Americans towards the events in Europe.
This one doesn’t focus so much on the Jewish issue. That’s a smart move. Jews were far from the only people impacted by the war. While the numbers killed is certainly staggering, it’s good to offer some insight into the global issues that developed during the war. There is a look at Warsaw, which contained the largest Jewish population, at the time, outside of New York City.
Of course, it all culminates in the liberation of Paris with plenty of footage of the liberation itself and the celebrations that followed. We briefly glimpse the French political scene tied in with the liberation of the city that would determine its leadership in the years that followed.
The Long Way Home (1997)
Narrated by Morgan Freeman with the additional voices of Martin Landau, Miriam Margoyles, Ed Asner, Sean Astin, David Paymer, Helen Slater and Michael York. This one is directed by Mark Jonathan Harris.
The film covers the years immediately after WWII. It’s basically from 1945-1948. The question is what comes next for the Holocaust survivors. Starting with those first encounters with Allied liberation troops, the film is candid in the way it presents these encounters. The truth was the Allies didn’t know what to do with these people. No one could have been prepared for what they encountered. This led to some serious issues that made many of the Jews feel like they hadn’t really been liberated at all. It was a logistic nightmare with limited resources and experience.
From there it’s a question of displaced refugees with not even a country to call home. The film explores the various reactions from many countries including the United States. Of course, the eventual answer is a Jewish state, but where and how could one be created?
The film uses many testimonials and letters to reveal the reactions of the liberated survivors. Conditions were still horrible, and it’s easy to think some of these testimonials are downright ungrateful. It was an impossible situation for the entire world. The course leads us to the establishment of Israel in what was then Palestine.
In Search Of Peace (2001)
Narrated by Michael Douglas with the additional voices of Ed Asner, Ann Bancroft, Richard Dreyfuss, Miriam Margoyles and Michael York. This one was directed by Richard Trank, who would go on to direct most of the future films from the Wiesenthal Center.
Now we pick up in the days immediately after the establishment of the state of Israel. Here is where the real work begins for the Jewish community to define their own future. The problem is that the new country is surrounded by nations that are hostile toward them. The new country must quickly fight for the right even to exist.
The film describes these birth struggles and the military operations that were necessary for Israel’s survival. This movie does an absolutely wonderful job of showing in great detail these military struggles. This is a part of history not so well documented. It is highly relevant today with the struggles that still exist for this country. Of course, it’s dominated our news so much recently that it would be a good idea for everyone to see this. Perhaps they could put the Jewish struggle in perspective. Americans are not used to living with the constant threat of missile attacks and bombs. It’s been a way of life here since the State’s inception.
The film ends with the hard-fought victories and the reunification of Jerusalem under Israeli rule after the 6-Day War.
Unlikely Heroes (2003)
Narrated by Sir Ben Kingsley and directed by Richard Trank.
The film chronicles six stories of resistance and survival from the Holocaust.
The Lawyer looks at Will Perl, who risked his life by smuggling Jews out of Austria and into Palestine ahead of the Nazi occupation.
The Entertainer looks at Robert Clary who is best known to us as LaBeau from Hogan’s Heroes. What even I did not know was that he had been in a concentration camp where most of his family died. He survived by singing. It was charming enough to the Nazi’s to keep him alive. He would then spend his nights singing secretly for the prisoners to help lift their spirits. You have to understand he got little sleep and spent precious calories to do this in a camp where food was at starvation levels. It’s amazing that Clary would go on to participate in a Nazi comedy.
The Rabbi’s Daughter was Riche Sternbuch, who created a rescue operation to help Jews get Swiss passports. This made them citizens of a neutral country and relatively protected. Of course they were forged, and all involved risked execution if they were discovered.
The Artist was Friedl Dicker-Braneis. She was a German-trained Vienna artist who began to use art as a therapy for children. When she ended up in a concentration camp, she used those skills to try to help the children imprisoned with her. She was gassed at Auschwitz. Drawings that the children made from the camp still survive, and we get to see them here.
The Partisan was Leon Kahn. He and his brother watched the slaughter of their family by Nazi troops while they hid in an overgrown cemetery. They joined the resistance with ambitious plans that even had them successfully destroy one of the crematorium ovens at Auschwitz.
The Master Of Disguise was Pinchas Rosenbaum. He would steal uniforms from dead German soldiers and use forged papers to allow him to walk right in and rescue captured Jews right from under the Nazi’s noses. He boldly walked into SS headquarters and Nazi camps where his disguises helped him save countless lives. The amazing thing is that he never got caught.
I Have Never Forgotten You: The Life And Legacy Of Simon Wiesenthal (2007)
The film was directed by Richard Trank.
If you are going to have a collection named for someone, you had better include a documentary to show who he was and why he was worthy of the honor. The film largely uses film clips of the man himself to tell his story in his own words. There’s footage from the war crimes trials where he brought so many Nazi criminals to justice. Many of his more famous cases are chronicled and the process by which he operated.
We get to see the toll his work had on his family and how hard it was for his wife to deal with it at times. While she was supportive, she often felt as if she were married to millions of dead people. There’s no question he made sacrifices to do what he did. There was more than his fair share of heat and hatred. His home had once been burned down.
He was a best selling author and appeared as a man much like himself in The Odessa Files.
Winston Churchill: Walking With Destiny (2010)
Narrated by Sir Ben Kingsley and directed by Richard Trank.
While there is certainly plenty of bio stuff here, this film focuses on Churchill’s ascension to the Prime Minister post in Great Britain and his ferocious war effort to protect the island nation from Nazi Germany. Of course, it was Churchill who saw the threat years before while then Prime Minister Chamberlain did his best to appease Hitler in the hope that it would keep the lion at bay. It didn’t work, and Churchill is one of those instances of a man in the right place at the right time for the sake of history.
There’s much coverage of his speeches and his willingness to go out among the bombed areas to lift the spirits of his fellow countrymen. Plenty of footage of the man and his battles. His relationship with FDR is thoroughly covered here with actual footage of their encounters.
It Is No Dream: The Life Of Theodore Herzl (2012)
Narrated by Sir Ben Kingsley with the additional voices of Christopher Waltz as the voice of Herzl.
Waltz was a 19th century writer who was calling for a Jewish state in Palestine long before the Nazi’s were ever heard of. The film is a bit of a bio focusing on the events that brought Herzl to his conclusions. He eventually banded together with others to attempt to create the Jewish state but fell short of his goals. He wrote a book entitled “A Solution To The Jewish Question”. It’s the same question that Hitler answered with genocide.
We get another history lesson in anti-Jewish sentiment growing in Europe. This time it’s from Herzl’s eyes. He never gave up on the idea the Jewish state would one day be a reality. He died before it happened, but he had requested to be reburied in that state one day and eventually was.
The Prime Ministers (2013)
Features the voices of Sandra Bullock, Christopher Waltz, Michael Douglas and Leonard Nimoy. It was directed by Richard Trank.
This is the last and absolutely the weakest of the films in the collection. It’s actually not even a film in its own right. It’s the first part of a mini-series and only looks at two of Israel’s Prime Ministers. It’s very much like a history lesson that delves into the politics and lives of these two people. I wish I could say there’s any meat here, but I found that it dealt with surface issues and minutia and didn’t hold my interest very much at all. Most of the narrative comes from Yehuda Avner who worked in both governments as an aide. That puts this all in a rather one-sided story.
The two covered here are Levi Eshkol and Golda Meir, who is by far the more interesting of the two.
Yes, there is plenty of footage here, but even that is mostly of the mundane. Do I really want to sift through so much footage of statesmen meeting with various bodies and other leaders? The answer is no, and it seems like a wasteful way to end this collection.
Taken all together, this is a collection that should be in every household and in every classroom. There are lessons here that are not always very pretty to look at but must remain told for generations to come. With this collection we not only get the big picture of the Holocaust but a very detailed look into so many other aspects of that time in history and these people as a culture. For those of you who find it merely a speck of ancient history, particularly now as the last survivors are dying out, this was a harsh reality for the entire planet and more importantly, “It can happen again”.