Many Israelis are kvelling that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences has nominated two Israeli-produced films — “5 Broken Cameras” and “The Gatekeepers” — for the 2013 Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. But before Israeli cinephiles start singing hosannas to the AMPAS, they might want to know about the organization’s unconscionable support for the notorious “Liberators: Fighting on Two Fronts in World War II,” which was nominated for the same award 20 years ago.
“Liberators,” directed by Williams Miles and Nina Rosenblum, and with narration by Denzel Washington (a Best Actor nominee this year for “Flight”) and Lou Gossett Jr., premiered on PBS’s “The American Experience” on Veterans Day in 1992. The film tendentiously claimed that African-American GIs from the 761st Tank and 183rd Combat Engineers battalions liberated Buchenwald (21,000 prisoners) and Dachau (32,000), two of the largest concentration camps freed by the US Army.
While the film offered a comforting, inspiring tale of one persecuted minority rescuing another, there was a problem — the story was an invention.
Leon Bass, one of the stars of “Liberators,” was first misrepresented as a Buchenwald liberator in 1981, at an International Liberators Conference hosted by the US Holocaust Memorial Council at the State Department in Washington. A front-page article in the Washington Post on Oct. 28, 1981, falsely reported that Bass “liberated Buchenwald with an all-black unit.”
Bass’s great heroism had in fact consisted of a visit to Buchenwald on April 17, 1945, six days after the camp’s liberation, during which another 183rd soldier, William Scott III, took a few photographs.
On Nov. 9, 1992, two days before the nationwide PBS broadcast of “Liberators,” the world premiere was held at New York City’s Lincoln Center before an audience of prominent Jewish and black Americans, including Mayor David Dinkins, Lena Horne, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Harvey Meyerhoff, the chairman of the US Holocaust Memorial Council.
The event was sponsored by WNET/Channel 13, the film’s chief financial backer and PBS’s affiliate in New York City, and the Holocaust Council, the federal organization established in 1980 to build and operate the nation’s Holocaust Museum in Washington. Thus, even before its opening the following April, the museum was ensnared in a major scandal.
The film offered a comforting, inspiring tale, but there was a problem — it wasn’t true
On Dec. 17, at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, another screening was held before an audience of 1,200 prominent Jews and blacks, hosted by three influential politicians: Congressman Charles Rangel, Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau and Jesse Jackson. Elie Wiesel, who didn’t appear in the film, sent a videotaped message of support, and the event was broadcast on WNET.
But a Feb. 8, 1993, article in the New Republic, “The Exaggerators,” written by Jeffrey Goldberg, delivered a devastating blow to the film. While the opening scene shows two veterans of the 761st Tank Battalion “returning” to Buchenwald with survivor Benjamin Bender, one of the GIs, E.G. McConnell, confessed to Goldberg that his first trip to the camp was in 1991, courtesy of WNET. Goldberg also reported that McConnell’s admission was “supported by a host of veterans of the 761st,” the battalion featured in “Liberators.”
During Jackson’s unsuccessful 1988 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, he had expanded the myth of the African-American liberators to include Dachau. The New York Times published credulous articles on May 31 and June 3, and both disseminated the falsehood that Paul Parks, a close associate of eventual nominee Michael Dukakis, was a Dachau liberator.
On Feb. 10, Kenneth Stern, a researcher at the American Jewish Committee, released a 15-page report, “Liberators: A Background Report,” which stated that the “film has serious factual flaws, well beyond what can be written off as ‘artistic license.’” The next day, WNET/Channel 13 and PBS jointly pulled the plug on the film, and commissioned an independent investigation.
Bass’s great heroism had in fact consisted of a visit to Buchenwald six days after the camp’s liberation
Incredibly, and despite the embarrassing scandal, on Feb. 18, the AMPAS announced that “Liberators” was among five films nominated for Best Documentary Feature. The next day, the New York Jewish Week published my article “Liberating the Facts about Camps’ ‘Liberation,’” about the distortions in the film and the eponymous companion book from Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. In early December 1992, I had joined the anti-”Liberators” brigade — my late father, Barney Schulte, had fought with Gen. George Patton’s Sixth Armored Division, the genuine liberator of Buchenwald.
As a result of the “Liberators” Oscar nomination, Col. James S. Moncrief, the Sixth Armored’s assistant chief of staff for personnel, sent a letter of protest to the Academy. On March 4, Bruce Davis, the AMPAS executive director, replied:
“In a motion picture form that implicitly promises to deliver the truth, factual accuracy can legitimately be one of the criteria by which pictures are judged … To say that LIBERATORS is ineligible because of factual misrepresentations would imply that we checked every fact in the other . . . nominated documentaries and had found them all entirely accurate.”
Despite Davis’ equivocations, awarding “Liberators” with the Oscar was a bridge too far for AMPAS voters, and on March 29, “The Panama Deception” received the prize.
Six months later, the New York Times published an article about a just-released independent report by WNET conceding that African-American GIs played no role in the liberation of either Buchenwald or Dachau. In contrast to the Motion Picture Academy, PBS’s flagship station instituted a “new policy of requiring producers [of documentaries] to demonstrate proof of their claims before financing is provided.”
A mind-boggling postscript to the scandal occurred in February 1999, when a film from Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation, “The Last Days,” was nominated for an Oscar for superbly documenting the genocide against Hungarian Jewry in 1944.
The director of the Academy stood by the film’s nomination, even after its distortions became public
In an op-ed published that month in the New York Post, I pointed out that while “The Last Days” portrayed Paul Parks, Jesse Jackson’s 1988 hero, as a Dachau liberator, he had zero credibility. WNET’s investigation six years earlier had underlined that Parks, identified in “Liberators” as serving in the 183rd Combat Engineers Battalion, had actually served in the 365th Engineers.
Subsequent research at the National Archives in College Park, Md., revealed that the 365th was not anywhere near Dachau on the day of its liberation — in fact, it was in another country entirely, close to Le Havre, France. Despite this egregious fabrication, which I disclosed in the Forward, “The Last Days” won the award.
On Sunday, the 20th anniversary of the “Liberators”-tarnished Oscars, viewers might want to weigh these facts as they wait to see whether “5 Broken Cameras” or “The Gatekeepers” takes home the Academy Award.