Terrors of the Resistance

The highly controversial French documentary film, “Terrorists in Retirement,” offers a striking revelation that, on reflection, should come as no surprise at all — Eastern European Jews played a prominent role in the most daring exploits of the World War II French resistance movement. This truth comes as a jolt only because French popular myth and official histories have so thoroughly suppressed it, considering it harmful to the nation’s heritage to admit that stateless immigrants, facing deportation and almost certain death, fought harder for France’s freedom than did many citizens who were content to collaborate with their German conquerors.

The film, produced in 1984, sparked a huge uproar in France when a state-television network initially banned it. Now Los Angeles audiences can see for themselves what the brouhaha was all about when “Terrorists in Retirement” — in the original French title, the word “Terroristes” was placed in ironic quotation marks — screens at the Laemmle Theatres this month.

In 1980s France, the basic facts about Jewish resistance fighters were only the beginning of the film’s disturbing disclosures. The most contentious news that the documentary delivered concerned the 1943 betrayal of the main Jewish resistance group based in Paris — the public execution of 23 men arrested by the Gestapo and French authorities. (For propaganda purposes, the Nazis put up a red poster with the dead men’s pictures on it, asserting that France was well rid of these despised foreign troublemakers.) The film’s claim, in few words, is that the French Communist Party was responsible for their deaths.

It’s a complex story, but also a simple one. Much of it is told by a small number of Jewish resistance survivors, men who were in their teens during the war — mainly Polish Jews whose families had fled to France in the 1930s — and who had strong ties to the Communist Party through their parents or because it appeared to be the most militant opponent of fascism.

When the film’s director, Mosco Boucault, an Armenian Jew, found them 40 years later, they were working in obscurity in garment trades. Boucault filmed them at their sewing machines, or with scissors or needle and thread in hand, and somewhat incongruously presents the 60-year-olds re-creating several of their wartime exploits, with extras awkwardly standing around in makeshift uniforms representing German guards or assassination targets.

One of the film’s most important charges maintains that the party’s first betrayal of Jews in France came through the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939, the non-aggression treaty that was in place when the Nazis overran France and set up the Vichy regime. When Jews were ordered to register and even when the first roundups occurred, the resistance survivors recall, the party’s advice was to acquiesce. By the time the Nazis invaded Russia and the Communists resumed the struggle, it was too late: The apparatus for deporting Jews to the camps from France was firmly in place. (At that time, the film suggests, the Jews’ dire situation served as an effective recruiting device for the resistance — fight or die, or at least die fighting.)

After nearly an hour of filling in the background, the film abruptly opens the debate over the 1943 betrayal. A fighter who had been captured and tortured had revealed many details about the Jewish group to the Germans. Communist leaders were aware for some time that police and Gestapo agents were tracking the Jews (as well, as Spanish, Italian and other foreign segments of the resistance organization). The question is, why were the endangered fighters not sufficiently warned or hidden or sent to other regions? (Among the survivors interviewed, several had chanced to go out of Paris at the time of the mass arrests.)

The film — bolstering its grim argument by interviewing several French historians — contends that the Communist resistance needed to get rid of its foreign fighters at just that time. Maneuvering had already begun toward post-liberation political alignments: With Charles de Gaulle’s Free French movement either a potent rival or a potential ally, the Communist resistance wanted to ready itself for postwar power struggles by refashioning itself as quintessentially, patriotically French. That its fiercest and most effective fighters were Jews and other foreigners was a major handicap that the roundup conveniently took care of. In fact, if it hadn’t been for that red Nazi propaganda poster, about which the literary surrealist Louis Aragon later wrote a poem, the significance of the non-French role in the resistance might have been almost completely lost.

The battle over the film back in the 1980s took place while the French Communist Party was still a viable political force. Reports at the time suggest that the party began agitating against the film as soon as it heard about the production, several years before the work had been completed. As one of his narrators, Boucault enlisted actress Simone Signoret, who had recently broken with the Communists after having been a longtime supporter — a casting choice that surely increased the film’s potential damage to Communist mythology.

Some 16 years after it was made, “Terrorists in Retirement,” if at times unpolished, tells a tragic and compelling story.

“Terrorists in Retirement” screens Nov. 23-Dec. 8 as part of the Laemmle Theatres’ “Bagels and Docs” A Jewish Documentary Series.” For information, call (310) 478-1041.

Hidden Heritage Inspires Director

British film director Stephen Frears was drawn to "Liam," about the making of an anti-Semite, partly because of a startling family secret he discovered in his late 20s.

His brother blurted out the news during his grandmother’s 90th birthday party, not long after Frears had married a Jewish woman. "He said how pleased our grandmother was that I had married a Jewish girl — and that our mother was Jewish," recalls Frears, 60, the director of "The Grifters" and "High Fidelity." "Of course I was surprised that something like this had been concealed from me for so long."

The revelation came out of left field. Frears and his mum had regularly attended Church of England services in his gritty hometown of Leicester, where, he recalls, "there was simply no evidence that Jews existed." Frears didn’t meet his first identifiable Jew until he was 13 and off at boarding school. "We called him ‘Ikey,’ which is what they used to call Jews in the East End, in an unthinking, schoolboy way," he says by phone from his home in the Notting Hill section of London.

Frears’ mother never revealed why she chose to conceal her background, but the director has his theories. Perhaps it was to rebel against her parents, he suggests; perhaps it was to conceal her German maiden name, Danziger, during World War II; perhaps it was to circumvent the covert anti-Semitism prevalent in Britain after the war. "People are very open about Jewishness in America, but in England, there’s a great deal of silence about it," he explains. "People just eliminate what they don’t like."

The anti-Semitism depicted in "Liam," now in theaters, is of a more strident nature. The setting is a rigidly Catholic neighborhood in 1930s Liverpool, where 7-year-old Liam (Anthony Borrows) prepares for his first Communion as his father becomes increasingly resentful toward the Jews.

The trouble starts when Dad is laid off by his Jewish employer, forcing Liam’s teenage sister to go to work as a servant for a Jewish adulteress (she’s bribed to keep silent about the affair). A Jewish pawnbroker and moneylender continually gouge the family. Eventually Dad becomes a fascist.

Frears admits some of his Jewish characters are less than flattering — but that is the point, he insists. "This is the story of a man who ends up as a Black Shirt, so of course his point of view is going to be hideously stereotyped," he says.

Liam’s impoverished childhood reminds Frears of his own early years during World War II. "I remember a lack of food," says the director, who is the son of a physician. "Most of the rooms in our house were closed because we couldn’t afford to heat them, so I basically sat with my mother in the kitchen for five or six years. I used to have baths in front of the fire, like a working-class child."

Even when his family’s lifestyle improved, Frears found Leicester to be "dull and oppressive." He escaped by retreating to the cinema twice a week.

In his 20s, the Cambridge law grad went to work for director Karel Reisz — known for "slice of life" films about the working class — and eventually churned out his own British TV movies about the working poor. His BBC film "My Beautiful Laundrette," about the relationship between a Cockney punk and a Pakistani immigrant, earned him international acclaim in 1985. Three years later, he came to Hollywood to make his first American film, "Dangerous Liaisons," starring Glenn Close and John Malkovich as French aristocrats bent on games of sexual revenge.

Frears made an interesting discovery while shooting subsequent U.S. films such as "Hero," starring Dustin Hoffman. "I found that the film industry here is dominated by Jews, and that America has a completed different attitude toward Jews than Britain," he says. "It was all much more public and upfront and talked about and part of life. So, as it were, the British silence had ended."

Yet, Frears never bothered to set foot in a synagogue or read up on Judaism. One reason, he hints, is a cruel irony that devastated him around the time he learned he was Jewish. His now 29-year-old son was born with a genetic illness, familial dysautonomia, that is carried by one in 30 Ashkenazi Jews. "His life has been dominated by this illness," Frears says. "I may not have known I was Jewish, but I carried the gene."

"Liam," based on Jimmy McGovern’s autobiographical screenplay, is one of the few times Frears has actively sought out anything to do with his heritage. "I was very aware that this was the first time I was making a film that dealt with the Jewish experience and people," he says. "I guess I was curious. I was sticking a toe into the water."

A Divine Voice

God spoke to me once when I was 12 years old. Although it happened years ago, I remember it as clearly as if it were today. Revelation is a tricky thing. I am reminded of the Midrash that when God gave the commandments at Mt. Sinai, God speaks to the Children of Israel in a divine voice so powerful they are too terrified to hear anything beyond the very first word of the first commandment. Since even that was too much to bear, God arranged it so they only heard the first letter of the first word. The first word is Anohi (“I am”), and the first letter is an alef, which is silent. So the rabbis teach us that what the Jewish people heard when God spoke was the Divine Silence of the mitzvot. Within that Divine Silence, each woman and man experienced her or his own unique divine revelation.

That was my experience, too. It happened on a Boy Scout trip to the High Sierras in the summer after sixth grade. It should have been one of the great summers of my life. Instead it was a disaster. In that one summer, I went to camp in Catalina, Jewish summer camp in Saratoga and a High Sierra backpacking experience. I was miserable, anxious and homesick during each one.

I sat on the sidelines during the entire time at Catalina, depressed and unwilling to participate in much of anything. I was actually sent home early from Camp Saratoga (an experience that left me one of the few kids in history to be told he “failed” camp!), and I was profoundly homesick in my pup tent high atop the Sierra Mountains — even though my father went on the trip with us.

Now I suppose I could simply chalk it up to a summer of raging adolescent hormones. It was certainly that. But that wouldn’t really tell the whole story. For adolescence is not only a time of great physical upheaval, it is often the most emotionally disorienting and confusing time in our lives as well. It certainly was for me.

When I was growing up, I was always the smallest kid in class. Whenever we took class pictures and lined up according to height, I was inevitably at the end of the line. I’m not sure if anyone has done a double-blind study of such things, but I can tell you from personal experience that the simple logistical decision of lining up kids for a picture can seem to have near cosmic significance to the fragile ego of a child. I was certain that being at the end of the line was as much a judgment on my social stature as it was on my physical size.

It was this less-than-secure sense of self worth that I shlepped with me to all those camps that summer, particularly prevalent high atop the mountain in the Sierras.

It must be something about mountains. For it was there in this week’s portion that Moses had his encounter with God, and it was on a mountain that I had mine. I have often wondered how long Moses had to stand and watch before he noticed that the bush was burning but not burning up. The Torah tells us that only after his internal realization did God effect a divine revelation. In my case, I was alone in the tent when I heard God’s whisper. To this day I don’t know why. I only know I heard an unmistakable message to stop whining, and start worshipping — to stop focusing on all I wasn’t and start realizing all that I was and the miracles that were everywhere if I was willing to open my eyes and see them. I was only 12, but my life has never been the same.

Steven Carr Reuben is rabbi at Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades.