As long as there are those who deny that there ever was a Holocaust, there will be a need for films like Manfred Kirchheimer's "We Were So Beloved." The film, which screens all four Sundays in February at 11 a.m. at the Music Hall, preserves the invaluable memories of the aging German-Jewish community of Manhattan's Washington Heights neighborhood.
"We Were So Beloved" is a tribute both to the skills of Kirchheimer, a veteran documentary film maker, and a commentary on the uniqueness of the individual. It complements rather than duplicates the many fine documentaries on the Holocaust that have preceded it, including "Shoah." Much that is familiar seems fresh because of Kirchheimer's keen sense of organization and concise historical context and his ability to persuade his mainly elderly interviewees to speak of their most painful experiences and emotions. Some of their revelations are so candid that they are unsettling--e.g., some speak of a tendency of German Jews to blame Eastern European Jews for bringing down Nazi wrath upon them.
Kirchheimer punctuates his interviews with quotations from "Mein Kampf" to drive home the point that Hitler's vision for the Third Reich and for the fate of the Jews were clearly spelled out had he only been taken seriously much earlier. However, witness after witness says that no one could believe such evil could be unleashed in a country with so rich a cultural heritage--that even after Hitler's rise to power, Jewish leaders were urging their people not to emigrate. Indeed, many Jews thought of themselves as Germans first. Max Frankel, executive editor of the New York Times, and a boyhood friend of Kirchheimer, admits that as a German citizen at 6 he would have loved to have been a Hitler Youth--"if only they would have had me." That he and his family were able to escape he attributes to his mother's courage and "just plain luck."
By the time of the infamous Kristalnacht on Nov. 10, 1938, in which most of the synagogues and Jewish-owned businesses in Germany were systematically wrecked, it was too late for most German Jews to escape. Kirchheimer states that by the time World War II had started a quarter of a million Jews had left Germany and Austria; of those that remained, 90% lost their lives. He adds that the U.S. immigration policies of the time were so restrictive that it would have taken 26 years for all those who wanted to come to America to be allowed entry.
The starting point for Kirchheimer was his own family, who managed to emigrate in 1936 when Kirchheimer was 5. His mother declined to be interviewed, but Kirchheimer's father (who has since died) speaks candidly. The elder Kirchheimer admits that he would never have had the courage to shelter other Jews as some German Gentiles did; later he reveals that he just could not bring himself to help U.S. intelligence in its preparations for the bombing of his native Bremerhaven, a strategic port city.
Reaching out to friends and neighbors of his parents, Kirchheimer talks with both Auschwitz survivors and those who escaped Germany. One Auschwitz survivor was aboard the St. Louis, the ship depicted in the "Voyage of the Damned," in which some 900 German Jews were denied entry into Cuba--and later, the United States--and were tragically forced to return home. This same woman speaks of blind obedience as being as deeply ingrained in German Jews as in other Germans; a takeover of the St. Louis by its Jewish passengers would have been unthinkable, she says. Another woman blames all Germans, Jews included, for being "asleep" in regard to the coming of Nazism.
The range of Kirchheimer's questioning stretches from deep into the the past to the present, and he elicits surprisingly varied responses from his subjects in regard to their attitude toward Germans today. What is amazing is how forgiving some of his people seem to be--indeed, more so than their offspring. How poignant it is to hear one woman speak of renewing a friendship after the war with a Christian neighbor that has continued to the present.