In this week’s blog, Victoria Grace Walden introduces two contemporary films about lesser-known stories of Jewish refugees – Rescue in the Philippines: Refuge in the Holocaust (Russell Hodge and Cynthia Scott-Johnson, 2012) and BESA: The Promise (Rachel Goslins, 2012).

Rescue in the Philippines

The documentary Rescue in the Philippines places the story of the islands’ Jewish refugees in the wider context of the Second Sino-Japanese war, Pearl Harbour, and the battle in Europe and Africa against Nazi Germany.

It Started with a Poker Game

The film examines how a shared loved for high risk gambling brought together Protestant officers from the U.S. Government, including High Commissioner to the Philippines Paul McNutt and Col. Dwight D. Eisenhower (future US President), a group of Jewish-American brothers who ran a successful cigar production company – the Freiders – and the country’s Catholic president Manuel Quezon. Their friendship that developed over poker games led to them devising a plan, which resulted in the rescue of more than 1,200 Jews.

The film does not shy away from the racism and anti-immigration sentiment within the U.S. Government and wider society at the time, which made the rescue difficult. It also highlights the religious differences of the rescuers from each other, and in the case of McNutt, Eisenhower and Quezon from the refugees they were trying to help.

Furthermore, the film considers the relationship of the refugees’ stories to the context of the gradual dissolution of US colonial control in the Philippines, and the nation’s domination by Japanese forces. Rescue in the Philippines suggests that the impact of colonial powers in the islands might have sensitised President Quezon to care about others in danger across the world. He campaigned in the press for other nations to take notice of the refugees when there was widespread international silence.

The film also recognises that the danger for Jewish refugees came not only from Nazi Germany and the US authorities, who were reluctant to help, but also from the invading Japanese forces, who destroyed the islands’ only synagogue. Although the Jewish refugees here were far from the nexus of the Third Reich, this did not mean they were safe from war.

BESA: The Promise

To give besa in Albanian culture means to fulfil a promise no matter how difficult it is. Whilst Besa: The Promise begins as a documentary that explores several different stories of Muslim Albanians that saved Jews it soon focuses on the Hoxha family and their search for the Aladjems, who they hid during the war.

Find out more: Yad Vashem’s Online Exhibition: Besa: A Code of Honor

Near the beginning of Besa, photographer Norman H. Gershman remarks about his everyday battles with racism in contemporary American society, as a Jew living in a culturally-mixed neighbourhood. He expresses his desire to use film to counter contemporary xenophobia, particularly the problematic image of Islam in the West. In discovering the story of ten Albanians who helped Jews – seven Muslims, others Catholic or Orthodox, he realises this is the narrative he wants to explore.

“When There is a Knock on the Door, take Responsibility”

Besa places its stories of refugees, rescue and reunion in the context of a complex history in Eastern Europe. Albania was a country that opened its borders to Jewish refugees at the King’s decree, but like much of Europe, it was soon invaded by German forces and thus hiding Jews was a risk. Nevertheless, several families continued to do so. After the war, a strict and lengthy Communist regime made it impossible to engage in religious practices of any kind and most of the Jewish refugees fled home or to Israel, whilst those of all religions who stayed were at risk of persecution.

The film concentrates on the Hoxha family – the father Rifat bestowed his son Rexhep with a besa to return Jewish prayer books, left in their house by the family that they sheltered during the war, to their owner. It is only after the fall of Communism that Rexhep is able to begin his arduous quest to find the Aladjem family. After fifteen years he discovers Aron (the son of the family) is in Israel, albeit having changed his name. However, Aron is reluctant at first to speak about this past. Eventually the Hoxhas complete their besa as Rexhep passes over the books, which Aron bequeaths to his son after he dies to ensure they are kept safe.

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The incredible quest mapped through the narrative of Besa shows the intermingled struggles of people of different faiths, and the determination of individuals to save not only other human beings but their precious objects too. Objects – such as the Torah – which become endowed with personal memory.

Find out More:  Missing Pages – BESA – resources for teaching about the film’s topics.

  • How might looking at locations beyond the occupied territories enrich our understanding of the Holocaust?
  • How can narratives of rescue draw attention to the importance of interfaith communication and support in times of crises?
  • How can film be used productively to educate about the Holocaust and refugees? 

ME Template correctBio Victoria Grace Walden is a teaching fellow in media and film studies at the University of Sussex. Her forthcoming book explores cinematic intermaterialities and contemporary Holocaust memory. She has written extensively about Holocaust animations and has worked as a freelance educator for the Holocaust Educational Trust (UK). She founded the Holocaust, Contemporary Genocide, Popular Culture and Digital Technology online research fora. Her current research focuses on screen and digital media, and memory of the Occupation of the Channel Islands.

Excerpts and stills courtesy of the Press Teams of Rescue in the Philippines (3 Roads Communication) and Besa: The Promise ((c) JWM Productions, LLC) respectively.

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