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WNET Calls WWII Documentary 'Flawed' : Television: The station says 'Liberators,' which credited black battalions for freeing Nazi death camps, had factual errors. The makers reject the findings.

September 09, 1993|From Times Staff and Wire Reports

NEW YORK — A nationally broadcast documentary erred in crediting black battalions with liberating the Nazi death camps Dachau and Buchenwald, a public-television station that helped produce the film says.

WNET-TV here said that documents and interviews with veterans and Holocaust survivors showed that the film's account of the April, 1945, liberation of the camps "was seriously flawed."

The station said Tuesday that the film, "Liberators: Fighting on Two Fronts in World War II," about segregated Army units, would not be shown again unless the errors were corrected. WNET is considering broadcasting a correction, spokeswoman Karen Salerno said.

WNET and other Public Broadcasting Service stations aired the 90-minute film last November as part of "The American Experience" historical series. It was pulled from distribution three months later, after veterans and Jewish groups said the all-black 761st Tank Battalion and 183rd Engineer Combat Battalion had not freed those two camps.

WNET said that its review "also found a substantial number of less egregious errors, ranging from inaccurate dates for military events to the misattribution of still photographs and film footage of concentration camps."

"The review team's findings concur with critics of the film who have contended (that the two battalions) did not liberate Buchenwald and Dachau. However, the review team can substantiate the presence of the 183rd Engineer Combat Battalion at Buchenwald sometime within the week following April 11, 1945, and further acknowledges the possibility that some members of the 183rd may have been at Buchenwald within the 48-hour period of liberation" (as defined by military historians).

Filmmakers Nina Rosenblum and William Miles, who produced the film in association with WNET, rejected the station's finding and accused PBS of censorship.

"We do not feel that WNET has conducted an independent assessment of the programming," Miles Educational Film Productions said in a brief statement. "A continuation of this dialogue is counterproductive and only serves to denigrate the courageous concentration camp survivors and their heroic liberators."

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The film had been received warmly, and earlier this year was nominated for an Academy Award.

"The message of the film--that black soldiers were among the liberators of concentration camps--is absolutely true," Kenneth S. Stern, an anti-Semitism expert, wrote in a report earlier this year for the American Jewish Committee. "The tragedy is that the film has serious factual flaws."

The film also played a role in New York City politics. Last December, it was shown in Harlem's Apollo Theatre at a gala attended by some 1,200, including Mayor David Dinkins and the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

Sponsored by Time Warner Inc. and prominent New Yorkers, the screening was seen as a key to the healing of the rift between Jews and African-Americans in New York.

Jeffrey Goldberg, New York bureau chief of the Forward and author of an article in the Feb. 8 New Republic that attacked the accuracy of the film, said Tuesday, "What happened was that the producers saw an opportunity to tie the film into a continuing social crisis. In an effort to tailor to a message, to answer questions, they left the track a bit. They had an honest desire to do something to ease the tensions between the communities. It was all too pretty a package. History doesn't come packaged so neatly. Crown Heights explodes and boom! We wake up the next morning to find that blacks liberated a concentration camp. It was an exaggeration to make a social and policy point."

On Wednesday, Harry Chancey, vice president of program service at WNET, said that the station is going to institute new procedures in dealing with documentary films.

In the future, he said, "independent producers who come to us with (documentary projects) will have to provide documented and annotated research that would back up the assertions in their films. We are also planning to strengthen the language of our contract with producers that would hold them responsible for the content of their films."

WNET said its review team was led by Emmy Award-winning documentarian Morton Silverstein, assisted by researchers Diane Wilson, who has worked for NBC News, and Nancy Ramsey, who has written for the New Yorker and Fortune. Interviews were conducted with approximately 100 U.S. Army veterans "as well as survivors who were interned in the camps described in the broadcast."

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