Attack on 'The Liberators' came from all sides
Withdrawn from public TV, Holocaust documentary is under review for accuracy
Originally published in Current, May 17, 1993
By Karen Everhart Bedford
Filmmakers Bill Miles and Nina Rosenblum speak nostalgically about the night of Dec. 17, 1992. At a time when New York's African- and Jewish-American communities were seething over interracial killings in Crown Heights, a screening and celebration of Miles and Rosenblum's documentary ''Liberators--Fighting on Two Fronts in World War II'' at Harlem's Apollo Theater offered blacks and Jews common ground to stand on.
''The event itself was utopian,'' recalled Rosenblum. ''It was amazing to see.''
Months later, the film that attempted to promote racial harmony has instead become the center of a divisive dispute and has even split the veterans of an all-black Army unit, the 761st Tank Battalion. The 761st, which was featured in the documentary for its role in liberating Nazi concentration camps, in 1978 received the Presidential Unit Citation, the highest award any military unit can attain.
WNET and The American Experience in February 1993 withdrew the film from public TV distribution; WNET now finds itself in the unenviable position of fact-checking the producers' work almost 50 years after the events in their film. WNET will announce its findings in ''a month or so,'' according to spokeswoman Karen Salerno.
What Rosenblum described as a ''very vicious, one-sided attack'' on ''Liberators'' began in the New York media after the the Apollo event. Its purpose, she said, was to prevent the film from being distributed to schools in New York and other cities, and to prevent the filmmakers from winning an Academy Award. The film was nominated after the ruckus and WNET's withdrawal, but it didn't win an Oscar.
By early February , the national magazine New Republic had picked up the story, publishing a scathing article, ''The Exaggerators,'' in which a veteran who appeared in the film's most moving scene denounced it as ''a lie.'' Rosenblum was quoted describing the film's critics as ''people of the same mentality that says the Holocaust didn't happen.''
That same week, the American Jewish Committee issued a 15-page report that shed doubts on the oral testimony of other 761st veterans in the film, including whether, at the time, the soldiers really knew where they were and which camps they actually liberated.
''[T]he film has serious factual flaws, beyond what can be written off as 'artistic license,' '' summarized Kenneth Stern, a specialist in anti-Semitism who researched and wrote the report.
The day after the report came out in February, WNET and producers of the American Experience, which premiered the film nationally last November, announced their joint decision to withdraw ''Liberators'' temporarily from PTV distribution.
''Thirteen and the producers of the American Experience believe in the essential thesis of the documentary that black American soldiers played a role in the liberation of Nazi concentration camps. However, we believe a full review of all the issues raised would be appropriate so that any ambiguities can be clarified,'' said WNET in a statement.
''We don't say the criticism is true or false,'' Harry Chancey, v.p. of program services, said in a New York Times article Feb. 12. The withdrawal was a response to ''the volume of criticism.'' WNET officials last week declined to comment on the nature and progress of the station's investigation.
''There is no doubt to me that ... what remains appealling about this film is accurate--that black soldiers, face-to-face with racism at home underwent an extraordinary experience seeing the face of evil abroad,'' said Judy Crichton, executive producer of the American Experience.
''I am very pleased that WNET has been examining the film to see what flaws are there and how they might be addressed,'' said Crichton.'' Clearly, none of us want to perpetuate errors if they exist.''
Surrounded by critics
Miles and Rosenblum used the phrase, ''Fighting on Two Fronts'' in their subtitle--a reference to the racism that black soliders had to face at home--but complaints about the film came in from so many directions that, Miles said, the veterans ended up ''fighting on all fronts.''
''I can't sit idly by and see my friends, many of whom died, have their history torn apart and distorted,'' said retired Col. James S. Moncrief, who during the war served as a lieutenant colonel in the 6th Armored Division.
That all-white unit historically has been credited with ''liberating'' Buchenwald, which, by military definition, means that the division, and all units attached to it, entered the camp within the first 48 hours of its liberation. The 42nd and 45th divisions have competing claims as the liberators of Dachau.
Moncrief, along with members of other military associations, was active in organized efforts to refute ''Liberators,'' which included a campaign to deny the filmmakers an Academy Award. ''I've long since forgotten my pride as a soldier. I'm concerned as a citizen seeing history being rewritten to satisfy somebody's political and social agenda in New York City,'' he said.
Jewish groups also scrutinized the historical veracity of the film out of deeply held concerns that ''accuracy is essential'' in depicting the Holocaust, according to Stern. Mispresentations only aid critics who ''will exploit factual inaccuracy to explain that genocide wasn't so bad or should be dismissed,'' he said.
Although David Wyman, a retired professor from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, has not been a vocal critic of the film, he acknowledged having very strong opinions about the idea that Allied troops ''liberated'' camp survivors. To suggest that ''American and British forces went in to free Jews is a revision if one ever hears one,'' said Wyman, who wrote The Abandonment of Jews: America and the Holocaust. He described the concept of Allied forces liberating Jews as a ''myth that's emerging as we distance from that time.''
The Allies fought the war to ''defeat Hitler, not to save Jews,'' Wyman said. Their forces ''didn't go out of their way to liberate any camps''; they ''stumbled on them.''
Within the black 761st Battalion itself, former officers and soldiers refuted the accounts of other unit members who described their experiences as liberators. The battalion, which was attached to the 71st Infantry Division, was too far away from Buchenwald and Dachau for any of its tanks to have liberated either camp, several of the battalion's commanders said in the New Republic. Members of the unit also dispute recollections that elements of the battalion were lent out to other divisions that would have put them nearer the camps.
One point that no one appears to be disputing is that, in Stern's words, ''black soldiers were among the liberators of concentration camps.'' Indeed, the 761st Battalion has been credited for liberating Gunskirchen, a subcamp of Mauthausen, he wrote in the AJC report.
African-American soldiers were present at both Buchenwald and Dachau, Stern acknowledged in his report; the challenge for WNET's investigators is to substantiate when they entered the camp, and which units they were from.
Photographs taken in Buchenwald by a now-deceased veteran named William Scott, who served in the black 183rd Combat Engineers, proves that the unit was in the camp on the first day of its liberation, the filmmakers wrote in a newsletter of the International Documentary Association. Moreover, former Buchenwald inmates, including Ben Bender, ''continue to insist that they saw black soldiers in tanks during the first hours ... of their liberation,'' wrote Miles and Rosenblum.
''Changed his story''
Criticisms of ''Liberators'' focussed on how the filmmakers depicted and researched what became the most controversial assertion in the film--that the 761st Tank Battalion helped liberate the infamous Buchenwald and Dachau.
According to the film's critics, if the 761st helped liberate either camp, military records would document their role. The filmmakers insist that those records offer only incomplete accounts of the movements and achievements of black soldiers during World War II; veterans' oral testimonies about their experiences during the war help to fill those gaps.
''Inaccuracies are not in the film,'' said Bill Miles. ''They're in the documentation of past military history.''
The most moving scene in ''Liberators'' provided critics with ample ammunition to damage the film's credibility. In the scene, described by the narrator as a ''return'' to Buchenwald, two veterans of the 761st toured the camp with Benjamin Bender, a Holocaust survivor who recalled when black soldiers entered Buchenwald on the day of its liberation.
E.G. McConnell, one of the veterans who appeared in the scene, later revealed to Jeffrey Goldberg, New York bureau chief of the Jewish weekly the Forward and author of in the New Republic article, that he had never been to Buchenwald before the film shoot.
''It's a lie,'' said McConnell in the New Republic. ''We were nowhere near these camps when they were liberated.''
Stern wrote that the producers acknowledged to him that Leonard ''Smitty'' Smith, the other 761st veteran in the scene, also had never been to Buchenwald before. In the film, ''Smitty'' recalls participating in the liberation of Dachau.
WNET responded to criticism that the scene was misleading by saying that both veterans appeared in the film only as representatives of the 761st, according to an article in New York Magazine.
For reasons that Rosenblum says are ''extremely complicated and shocking''--and which she will not disclose--McConnell ''changed his story'' after the film was released and renounced his veteran friends. ''We have numerous segments of footage of him on the news and in public places saying he was a liberator of Dachau.''
''I won't answer that,'' said McConnell when questioned about whether this was true. In a brief interview with Current, he declined to tell his side of the story because ''an investigative team from PBS wanted to question me, and my attorney advised me not to [answer].''
In the New York Magazine article, however, McConnell told writer Stephen Dubner that, prior to the Buchenwald shoot, he insisted on stating on film that the 761st ''did not liberate this camp.'' He told Goldberg in the New Republic that he cooperated in the project until he became convinced that the filmmakers were ''faking material.''
Miles, who spent some 11 years developing the film with 761st vets, declined to elaborate on why McConnell renounced the film. ''Sometimes you think you know a person,'' he said calmly.
Advisor denies advising
For Robert Abzug, author of Inside the Vicious Heart: Americans and the Liberation of Nazi Concentration Camps, disassociating himself from ''Liberators'' became a matter of preserving his ''own credibility as a historian,'' he said.
His name appeared as historical advisor on the credits of ''Liberators,'' but the extent of his involvement on the film was allowing the filmmakers to use his name on an application for a grant they did not receive, Abzug said. At Rosenblum's request, however, last spring he agreed to review the text of the companion book, Liberators, by Lou Potter, published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
A professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin, Abzug said he found the text of the book so full of errors that, after pointing out a number of them, he recommended that the editors insert a disclaimer about oral history and asked that his name not appear in the book.
''I didn't want to be associated with it because I had no control over it,'' Abzug explained. ''When the book came out, it did not have my name on it, but [it did have] all the mistakes I told them about.''
''War stories are like fishermen's stories--if you don't have two sources saying the same thing, you can't assume it happened,'' Abzug elaborated.
''I never worked on the movie,'' asserted Abzug. ''I've never seen the script, the interviews, the footage.'' Although he recalled two telephone conversations with Rosenblum about the project prior to the film's release, in neither instance did he advise her on the film, he said.
In January , Abzug requested that the producers take his name off the credits and stop using his name in association with the film. WNET later agreed to do so.
Rosenblum said she spoke with Abzug ''several times about the film,'' and she described the dispute over his consultantship as ''a most unfortunate situation.'' She also acknowledged, however, that he never screened a rough cut of the film.
If we had known then ...
Miles spoke with amazing resilience when describing the ordeal of having ''Liberators'' attacked with such verocity. He expressed no bitterness about critics' efforts to block the film from winning an Oscar. ''Everybody can't be a winner. I was honored to be nominated.''
''Liberators'' never would have gone on the air, Miles said, if ''anybody had imagined what would happen.'' Having endeavored throughout his filmmaking career to develop films about the untold stories of African-American history, critics' attacks on the film's credibility don't seem to make sense, ''unless I've changed drastically.''
''So-called 'official records' keep changing every day,'' said Miles, as the military reclassifies information. ''We did all the research it was possible to do.''
With a discouraged tone, he added, ''I can't solve all the problems that people have.'' He remembered getting calls from people who could not imagine that blacks had liberated the camps. ''They could not see Negroes in combat.''
Now, Miles awaits the conclusions of WNET's team of reviewers, and remains on hand to respond to any questions.
''The only thing I got going for me is the liberators and survivors,'' he said. ''They're probably the best people I ever met.''
Rosenblum finds solace in another thought. ''When you talk about changing racism, you're delving into a very deep psychological place of fear.... None of what happened made me sorry; it made me understand this question better.''
She added, ''One thing I know now: there is not one person in the country who does not know that African-Americans participated in the liberation of concentration camps.''
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