Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Arts & Culture New Film Tells Story of How West Ignored Warnings About the Holocaust

October 28, 2002
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

There were several impromptu moments during the filming of the documentary, “Messengers Without an Audience,” director Willy Lindwer recalled following a screening here of his film about the messengers who warned the West about the Holocaust.

During the 52-minute film, Jan Karski, one of the Polish messengers interviewed by Lindwer, offers a perfect imitation of President Franklin D. Roosevelt brandishing his ever-present cigar and saying in his Boston-accented voice: “We will win this war.”

It was one of those ad-lib moments that filmmakers hope for, Lindwer said, remembering his series of interviews with the elderly but garrulous Karski.

Lindwer, a Dutch filmmaker who spends part of the year in Jerusalem, was commissioned by Dutch Television, his former employer, to make the film. He has produced several films about the Holocaust, including the award-winning documentary, “The Last Seven Months of Anne Frank.”

He spent two and a half years researching and documenting the stories of four messengers: Karski, Gerhart Riegner, Jan Novak and Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, as well as William Slany, the former chief historian of the U.S. State Department who later studied the anti-Semitic attitudes of the era, and Stuart Eizenstat, an Undersecretary of State during the Clinton administration who oversaw the publication of the “Nazi gold” reports that later served as a basis for reparations to Holocaust survivors.

The two most prominent messengers in the film are Karski and Riegner, a Swiss Jew who represented the World Jewish Congress in Geneva from 1936 through the war.

As a young Polish diplomat, Karski was captured by the Soviets in 1939, escaped, then joined the Polish underground. After being captured and tortured by the Gestapo in 1940, he escaped again, and continued his work as an underground liasion.

In 1942, he infiltrated the Warsaw Ghetto and Belzec concentration camp dressed as a Ukranian militiaman, all for his role as a courier carrying eyewitness accounts to the West.

For Karski, who during the war met with dozens of groups and leaders, including Roosevelt, in his efforts to create some kind of Allied intervention, his chief loss was his inability to move world leaders to take action against the Jewish extermination.

“I thought I was the greatest hero, because the president was my friend,” Karski said. “But the president didn’t say much.”

Karski, who became a Georgetown University political science professor, died in 2000 at the age of 86, before the film was completed.

It has long been debated whether the world leaders who brought Hitler to a halt actually listened or heeded Karski and the other couriers’ messages about Germany’s concentration camps and the unremitting extermination of 6 million Jews. As a result, their lack of attention and action has always confounded survivors and succeeding generations.

This was the subject that fascinated Lindwer, and prompted him to make the film.

“Why did some people want to inform the Allied world,” he asked. “And why did it take so long, until 1942, for the messengers to get out there?”

Sixty years later, “Messengers Without An Audience,” a fascinating, although sometimes uneven, documentary about the wartime efforts of several European messengers, again raises those questions and doubts.

Riegner, who also passed away before the film was completed, was initially instructed by the WJC to observe the developing situation in Europe and report back to Jewish organizations in England and the United States

After receiving information in 1942 that the Germans had a plan to murder between 3 and 4 million Jews, he wasn’t sure how many Jews would survive the war in Europe.

At that point, he sent a secret telegram to the U.S. State Department, intended for Rabbi Stephen Wise, then chairman of the American Jewish Congress. But Wise told the WJC that they needed more sources.

“I became very nervous,” said Riegner in the film. “I saw nothing was happening.”

A palpable sense of failure at being unable to convince the leaders, those who could perhaps have stopped the waves of extermination, echoed throughout the film.

As the messengers tell their stories in the film, describing forays into the ghetto and glimpses of concentration camps, Lindwer interweaves photographs of the Warsaw Ghetto, black-and-white shots of carriages piled high with bodies.

At the recent screening of the film at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, the audience of academics, former ambassadors and Holocaust historians asked why Lindwer didn’t deal with the degree of personal guilt felt by Churchill and FDR, or the lack of response from American Jewish organizations.

The comments, sometimes virulently negative, put Lindwer on the defensive. But he recovered quickly, commenting that his films concentrate on the “real people” and the stories they have to tell.

“General helplessness and ignorance was what was going on,” responded Lindwer, who has produced several films relating to the Holocaust. “I aimed to have these eyewitnesses — not historians — tell what they did and how they sat face to face with Churchill and Roosevelt.”

Recommended from JTA