The Rescuers: Heroism in Hard Times

A British historian and a Rwandan activist trace the story of 13 Diplomats who gave up their careers and livelihoods to save complete strangers from genocide

Sir Martin and Stephanie travelled through 15 countries to tell this story | Photo: The Rescuers

Stephanie Nyombayire is an activist on a quest to find solutions for the ongoing geno- cide in her native Rwanda | Photo: The Rescuers

Sir Martin and Stephanie travelled through 15 countries to tell this story | Photo: The Rescuers

The Rescuers is the latest film from Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Michael King, which poignantly uncovers the largely unknown stories of 13 courageous diplomats, who, at tremendous personal cost, sacrificed their careers, families and livelihoods, working desperately to save people they didn’t know – ultimately saving tens of thousands of Jews during World War II.

The film follows Stephanie Nyombayire, a young Rwandan anti-genocide activist who lost 100 members of her family in the Rwandan Genocide of the 1990s, and Sir Martin Gilbert, the renowned 20th century and Holocaust historian, as they travel across 15 countries interviewing survivors and descendants of the diplomats.


Then and now

The Rescuers is a sophisticated documentary with remarkable depth, a profoundly moving and challenging experience with immense educational value and contemporary relevance, bringing history to life and showing how the past continuously echoes in the present. It engagingly mixes archive footage with living history in the present day, visiting the cities, towns, countryside, train stations and offices where events unfolded, reliving the past through the accounts of the survivors and descendants. The Rescuers reveals the best of human behaviour during the worst of times. Both humbling and inspiring, its concerns and themes ultimately cross borders, race, religion, generations, time and space to challenge us all, not only to “never forget” but to be held accountable and to act.

The film begins with a preamble that links the past and present, accompanying Stephanie as she takes photos of her family’s simple graves in Kigali, Rwanda, sadly questioning the mysteries of the human heart. This is mirrored by a brief image of Sir Martin in the Jewish Cemetery at Hoop Lane, London. Stephanie then meets Sir Martin in his London home to assist him with his book project on the righteous diplomats and plan the pilgrimage to places where diplomats provided life-saving documents to Jews allowing them to escape. Another clip is of His Royal Highness Prince Charles speaking to a 70th Anniversary reunion of the German, Austrian and Czech Kindertransport children who had been allowed to enter Britain in 1938-1939. Prince Charles comments that saving Jewish life is a topic near to his heart, as his grandmother, Princess Alice of Greece, hid a Jewish family in her home in Athens.

In Jerusalem, Stephanie and Sir Martin go to research archive material and testimonials about the righteous diplomats at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority. As they walk across an arid but beautiful landscape that overlooks the old city of Jerusalem, Sir Martin reads Stephanie the story of the Good Samaritan, whom Jesus praised for helping his fellow human being.

On the Greek island of Rhodes, Stephanie and Sir Martin meet Bernard and Elliot Turiel, who, as little boys, were saved from deportation because their mother was a Turkish citizen. Selahattin Ülkümen, the Turkish Consul in Rhodes during the German invasion, insisted that Turkish citizens, and their families, were “neutrals” and could not be deported. Although he was told repeatedly not to give passports to Jews, he often defied orders. In person, Bernard and Eliot thank Ülkümen’s son Mehmet, acknowledging that they owe their lives and the lives of their families to the bravery of his father.


Stephanie Nyombayire is an activist on a quest to find solutions for the ongoing genocide in her native Rwanda | Photo: The Rescuers

Plus ça change… 

In Paris they meet Michael Kaufman, the much-loved correspondent of The New York Times, who was born in Paris to Jewish refugees from Poland.  Kaufman and his parents were given life-saving visas to cross from France into neutral Spain, due to the efforts of American Quaker and agent of the Emergency Rescue Committee Varian Fry, and American Vice-Consul Hiram Bingham IV, who worked together in the French port city of Marseille. And in one of the film’s many ironies, we learn that Stephanie herself almost does not make it to Paris because of a complicated visa process as a Rwandan travelling in Europe, leading Sir Martin to comment on how little has changed.

Against United States quota regulations, Fry and Bingham managed to save 2,500 Jewish artists and intellectuals, amongst them Marc Chagall and Hannah Arendt. Kaufman joins Stephanie and Sir Martin on this poignant journey across France, visiting Fry’s and Bingham’s office in Marseille and the tiny train station of Banyuls sur Mer where a young woman in a red dress from the French Resistance led his father on a smugglers path over the mountains and into Spain to be reunited with his family. This filming location was to be Kaufman’s final pilgrimage to the spot where his parents found freedom; he died 10 months later.

At the same time, Stephanie seeks to uncover potential solutions for the on-going genocide in Darfur, and is forced to face a painful truth: There was little international intervention in Rwanda.

“When the genocide started,” admits Lieutenant General Romeo Dallaire, former Commander of the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Rwanda, “my mandate as a U.N. Peacekeeper ended. There was reticence to get into another exercise in Africa, because they had just had Somalia a few months earlier and that was a debacle. The U.N. didn’t want to get into another African complex problem and was trying to do it on the cheap. Hopefully it would resolve itself. So it meant that Rwanda, Black Africa, didn’t count.”


Outspoken neutrality 

As the journey continues more astonishing stories are revealed. Budapest was the greatest success of combined diplomatic efforts to save the remaining Hungarian Jewish community, after the Hungarian deportations to Auschwitz were stopped in the spring of 1944. The 120,000 Jews remaining in Budapest needed protection from the anti-Semitic Hungarian Arrow Cross. Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish businessman, with help from the American War Refugee Board, coordinated the diplomatic efforts by establishing an “International Ghetto” with safe houses where Jews were hidden and protected. Diplomats from neutral countries who were active in Budapest, among them, Carl Lutz, the Swiss Vice-Consul, along with Giorgio Perlasca (Spain), Angelo Rotta (the Vatican), Per Anger (Sweden), and Carlos de Liz-Texeira Branquino (Portugal), along with their staffs, saved many Jewish lives. With Carl Lutz’s daughter Agnes Hirshi, Stephanie visits the powerful “shoe memorial” alongside the Danube, which symbolises the people who were ordered to remmove their shoes, bound together and shot into the frozen water. It was Carl Lutz who managed to pull a young woman from the waters and save her life.

Some of the diplomats found inventive ways to secure the safe passage of Jews from their countries, including Japanese Vice-Consul Chiune Sugihara in Kaunas, Lithuania. Kaunas in 1941 was occupied by the Soviet Union, and was inundated with Jewish refugees from Poland who were fleeing the German advance. Jan Zwartendijk, a representative of the Dutch government in Kaunas, pointed out that visas were not needed to enter the Dutch territory of Curaçao in the Dutch West Indies. With a document to that effect, refugees then appealed to Sugihara for a transit visa through Japan. With those two documents, the Soviet authorities would allow them passage on the Trans-Siberian Railway to Vladivostok, sailing then to Japan, and to wherever they then could get landing. In Copenhagen, German Attaché Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz arranged for the Swedish Prime Minister to agree to take in the Danish Jews. He organised the rescue of 7,200, a feat of remarkable generosity from someone who was a member of the Nazi Party.

What causes some to take action, no matter the risk, while others remain silent, Stephanie presses current diplomats. Why can’t saving lives be policy? What is the role of a diplomat, she asks Ambassador Kozlowski at the Polish Foreign Ministry. His answer inspires her: Sometimes there is no other choice but to “break the rules,” he says, and to be responsible in saving people’s lives.

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