Cinema loves a hero. But not all of life’s heroic tales make it to the big screen. At least, not right away. When the film Schindler’s List premiered in 1993, it introduced audiences around the globe to Oskar Schindler — the German industrialist who risked his life and fortune to save 1,200 Jews from the Holocaust.
Schindler’s new celebrity status came almost 20 years after his death, but his brave actions were already long known. In 1963, Yad Vashem had named him Righteous Among the Nations — the first former Nazi Party member to be so honored — and an award-winning 1982 novel, Schindler’s Ark, would later serve as the basis for the Steven Spielberg film.
Giorgio Perlasca, meanwhile, waited a bit longer to grant the world a cinematic close-up. Masquerading as a Spanish diplomat, he saved 5,000 Hungarian Jews in wartime Budapest. But when the war ended in 1945, he returned to a quiet life in Italy. It was not until 1987 that a group of Jewish survivors tracked him down, and he was honored as Righteous Among the Nations the following year. His deeds, which he had kept secret from even his family, were recounted in Enrico Deaglio’s 1993 novel, The Banality of Goodness, which was adapted for Italian TV in 2002 as Perlasca: The Courage of a Just Man.
That film, currently playing on The Jewish Channel, emphasizes Perlasca’s audacity — especially his daring rescue of two boys bound for a death camp.
It was one of many instances where Perlasca risked his own life to save Jews. The real-life confrontation was witnessed by 32-year old Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat who informed Perlasca that the German officer he had spoken with was Adoph Eichmann — architect of the Nazi Final Solution.
Wallenberg himself would prove an important counterweight to Eichmann’s efforts at genocide in Hungary, sheltering 100,000 of the country’s Jews from deportation. And, like Perlasca, Wallenberg’s story was first portrayed on the small screen. In 1985, the American TV film Wallenberg: A Hero’s Story cast Richard Chamberlain in the leading role. But in 1990, Swedish director Kjell Grede gave his fellow countryman the feature film treatment with Good Evening, Mr. Wallenberg starring Stellan Skarsgard.
Another native son to receive cinematic recognition back home was Japan’s Chiune Sugihara. In 1940, Sugihara used his position at the Japanese consulate in Kaunas, Lithuania to issue at least 6,000 visas to escaping Jews. He also negotiated the right for those Jews to travel through Soviet Russia — via the Trans-Siberian Railroad — and then on to other countries like China, with its 20,000-strong “Shanghai Ghetto.” In 1997, Japanese-American Chris Tashima directed and starred in Visas and Virtue, which won the Academy Award for best live action short film.
More recently, Nippon Animation in Japan marketed an animated version of Sugihara’s story.
Halfway around the world, director Joel Santoni brought the story of yet another heroic diplomat to French television with 2008’s Aristides De Sousa Mendes, The Life Of A Just. Today considered a national hero in his native Portugal, De Sousa Mendes defied his own government’s policies in 1940 by issuing more than 30,000 Portuguese visas to those fleeing Hitler’s invasion of France — including 12,000 Jews.
For his actions, De Sousa Mendes was fired from the Portuguese diplomatic corps and stripped of his pension. Overnight, his family — including 14 children — became social outcasts. Barred from resuming an earlier career as a lawyer, he suffered a disabling stroke in 1945. The family’s sole income would be donations from a local Jewish refugee agency, and De Sousa Mendes died impoverished and disgraced in 1954.
Suffering a similar fate was Dimitar Peshev, Bulgaria’s National Assembly co-speaker and Minister of Justice during World War II. He Successfully lobbied the Bulgarian government to rescind a 1943 order to deport the country’s 48,000 Jews to Nazi concentration camps. After the war, though, he served time in Soviet prison, before returning to Bulgaria and living unrecognized and impoverished for the next three decades. In January 1973, Peshev was named Righteous Among the Nations, but died a month later. In 1998, Gabriele Nissim published The Man Who Stopped Hitler, a novel which revived interest in Peshev. Still, apart from documentary films, there aren’t yet any big screen adaptations of his story.
Elsewhere, a film is in the works about British secret service agent Frank Foley. During the years leading up to World War II, he exploited his consulate post as passport control officer in Berlin to both gather military reconnaissance, and also help Jews escape the Nazi regime. In 1999, author Michael Smith published the novel Foley: The Spy Who Saved 10,000 Jews, which helped lead Yad Vashem to name Foley Righteous Among the Nations that same year.
Meanwhile, Hallmark Hall of Fame has announced the beginning of principal photography on a TV film-version of Irena Sendler’s wartime activities titled Miss Irena’s Children. The film was shot in Riga, Latvia and stars Anna Paquin.
As a member of the Zegota Polish Underground, the catholic Sendler helped smuggle 2,500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw ghetto. And though she was named Righteous Among the Nations in 1965, it was a 1999 play produced by American schoolchildren — titled Life In A Jar — which raised international awareness of Sendler, culminating in her 2007 nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Another Catholic with a film is Irish priest Hugh O’Flaherty, whose nickname “the Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican” was earned for saving 4,000 Allied soldiers and Jews from Nazi capture in wartime Rome. In 1983, Gregory Peck played Father O’Flaherty in the star-studded American television film The Scarlet and the Black.
But not all efforts at saving Jews were successful, and such was the case of Kurt Gerstein. A Waffen-SS officer who witnessed the gassing of Jews at Belzec and Treblinka, Gerstein approached a Swedish diplomat in 1942 — and later, Vatican representatives — with details of what he had seen. Despite hopes of alerting the wider world to Nazi atrocities, his written reports led to his arrest and “suicide.” A 2002 film adaptation of his story, titled Amen, aired on the Jewish Channel this past year. In 2007, Either Or, a play about Gerstein written by Schindler’s Ark author Thomas Keneally, staged a premiere in Washington DC.
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