December 14, 2018

Remembering the ‘Rescuers’

Director Peter Bogdanovich is best-known for “The Last PictureShow,” “Paper Moon” and other films that explore the Americanexperience.

He is also known for his affairs with youthful, blond andquintessentially American sex symbols: a radiant, 22-year-old CybillShepherd from “The Last Picture Show”; the glamorous but doomedPlayboy centerfold Dorothy Stratten, murdered in 1980 by herestranged husband; and Stratten’s younger sister, an actress thegrieving Bogdanovich began mentoring at the age of 13 and marriedseven years later.

What is less known about the 58-year-old director is that he doesnot consider himself first and foremost an American; rather, he is arefugee who was rescued from the Nazis.

That explains his passion for the television movie series”Rescuers: Stories of Courage,” which premières Oct. 5 onShowtime. The three films feature two rescuers’ stories each, takenfrom the popular 1992 book by Malka Drucker and Gay Block.

As for the Bogdanovich familystory, that began several years before the war, when BorislavBogdanovich, a Greek Orthodox Serb, was earning his living as apainter and pianist near Zagreb. The fortyish artist chanced torespond to an advertisement placed by a wealthy Viennese Jewishbusinessman who was seeking a piano teacher for his young daughters.Herma Robinson was the eldest and all of 13.

By the age of 17, she was pregnant with her piano teacher’s baby.The couple hastily moved to the altar, but Robinson pèredisapproved. Borislav was non-Jewish, an artist, and old enough to beHerma’s father. Robinson never behaved particularly well toward hisson-in-law despite the great favor Borislav did the family on the eveof war.

In early 1939, with the Nazi threat rumbling, Bogdanovich traveledto Paris to obtain tourist visas for the family to sail for New York,ostensibly to visit the World’s Fair. Peter, who was conceived afterthe couple’s first child died in a scalding accident, made the tripin utero. He was born two months after the family arrived inManhattan. While he spoke only Serbo-Croatian at home, the boy fellin love with all things American, especially the movies.

The rest of his mother’s family died in the concentration camps.”I was drawn to ‘Rescuers,'” he says, simply, “because I myself wassaved.”

Bogdanovich is known as a “women’s director,” so it is notsurprising that he took on the first film of the “Rescuers” series,entitled “Two Women.” In the first one-hour segment, ElizabethPerkins plays Gertruda Babilinska, a Polish nanny who hid her Jewishward from the Nazis. In the second, Sela Ward portrays Marie-RoseGineste, who supervised the hiding of Jews around her village ofMontauban, France.

Though the action in “Rescuers” takes place in Europe, the projectwas home-grown in Los Angeles. Specifically, it began with RabbiHarold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom, who, for decades, haspassionately urged Jews to remember the rescuers as well as the gaschambers.

Two of his congregants, Malka Drucker and Gay Block, took heed; inthe late 1980s, they put up thousands of their own dollars tointerview and photograph 50 rescuers in eight countries. They metpeasants and noblemen, priests and atheists, men and women who hadstolen food for their Jewish wards, forged passports and carriedchamber pots from attics.

Nevertheless, 20 publishers initially rejected the book, remarkingthat the world had heard quite enough about the Holocaust, and whowanted to look at pictures of old people?

Yet the tome was eventually a success, and Drucker’s agentbrother-in-law made sure that it crossed the desk of another ValleyBeth Shalom congregant, Jerry Offsay (on Offsay’s first day as thenew president of programming for Showtime two years ago, no less). Anenthused Offsay soon sent the book to Barbra Streisand and herproducing partner, Cis Corman, who says: “There was no way we couldnot do this project. We were in awe of the rescuers. We had heard ofWallenberg and Schindler, but we did not realize so many averagepeople had risked their lives.”

The first step, of course, was selecting six filmic stories from asampling of countries, and fleshing out the book’s terse,first-person interviews. Screenwriter Paul Monash traveled to JohtjeVos’ splendid, Woodstock, N.Y., country house to interview her abouthiding 36 Jews in her former home outside Amsterdam.

Writer Jon Pielmeier visited Germany to research the only rescuerswho were not in the book: Adolf and Maria Althoff, who hid Jews asclowns and jugglers in their wartime circus.

Drucker, among other tasks, conducted extra telephone interviewswith men who had been sheltered as small boys by Marie Taquet in hermilitary school in the Belgian castle of Jamoigne. Drucker sharesstory credit on that segment with her screenwriter parents.

Paramount Network Television put up some of the money, and whenthe scripts were done, the producers did not have to scrounge fortalent. The rescuers proved so popular that even A-list actors suchas Linda Hamilton (Marie Taquet) and Daryl Hannah (Maria Althoff)agreed to work at a fraction of their usual pay.

Watch “Two Women,” and it seems some dramatic license was used,for the story lines are, at times, different from those in the book.Nevertheless, the attention to atmospheric detail was precise.

Producer Jeff Freilich urged the art department to comb Europe forperiod props: actual forged passports, Nazi uniforms, wartime Germanvehicles, a 1930s French bicycle, a Hungarian iron from 1935. Theirefforts were so successful, he says, that once, while shooting insmall-town Canada, he heard a wail from across the road. Apparently,an elderly Auschwitz survivor who had not read the newspaper ads thatwarned about the shoot was overcome by the sight of Nazis andcowering Jews in the streets. Freilich found him crying, unable tostand and leaning against the wall. But when the producer apologizedand explained about the movies, the survivor wanly smiled and thankedhim.

The experience has stayed with Freilich. “Rescuers,” sums up theformer “Falcon Crest” writer/director/executive producer, “is thefirst time I have done something meaningful in TV.”

For Drucker, the project has had an even greater impact. Despiteher commercial success, she is not pursuing a career in show businessbut, rather, has enrolled in rabbinical school. “The book gave me aglimpse of what it is to connect people to heaven,” she says, “and Ican do that better as a rabbi.”

Drucker, in turn, has a theory about why the rescuers have becomeso popular. “We live in a time of great moral relativity, where weare inclined to feel hopeless about the possibility of redemption,”she says. “The rescuers, quite simply, remind us that goodness is apart of who we are.”

The second in the “Rescuers” series, “Two Couples,” will air inMay. The third, “Two Families,” will air in September 1998.