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Capturing the Pain and the Promise of Jewish History

Moriah Films, the movie-making arm of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, is committed to creating living documents.

September 21, 1997|Kristine McKenna | Kristine McKenna is a regular contributor to Calendar

When "The Long Way Home" opened last week under the Moriah Films banner, audiences probably thought, "Moriah Films? Never heard of it."

This moving documentary chronicling events in the lives of the Jews who survived Hitler's Third Reich only to have international doors slam shut on them is, however, the fourth film produced by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which launched Moriah Films in 1994.

Taking its name from Mount Moriah, the site in Israel where according to Judaic teachings Jerusalem was founded, Moriah Films exists largely as a result of the efforts of Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Wiesenthal Center, and Richard Trank, executive producer of the center's film division.

"Jews have always been a people of learning and originally they passed knowledge down orally," says Hier in a conversation at the Simon Wiesenthal Center office that includes Trank, and Mark Jonathan Harris, who wrote and directed "The Long Way Home."

Hier points out that when the printing press was invented in the 15th century there was tremendous debate as to whether the Talmud should be codified into writing and that Jewish scholars concluded it must be, because Judaism was obliged to keep up with a changing world.

"Now the world has changed again and the printed page is giving way to visual forms such as computers, video and movies," says Hier, who was a little-known Orthodox rabbi with a congregation in Vancouver before his arrival in L.A. to establish the city's only yeshiva in 1977. (To the dismay of many in L.A.'s organized Jewish community, the controversial Hier launched his school, attached it to his own Holocaust museum, and enlisted famed Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal to lend his name to it before that year was out.)

"There's no Jewish organization I'm aware of that's committed to producing documentaries on Jewish history, and we believe film is a useful means for making our rich heritage available to people. Although we won't focus exclusively on the years 1933-45, Moriah Films will always deal with the Holocaust because it's central to the mandate of the Wiesenthal Center."

Hier also says that from 1945 until 1979, when President Carter appointed a commission to address the subject, not a single penny was spent on Holocaust remembrance anywhere in the world, and that there were no major films on the subject released during those years. This isn't entirely true; 1959's "The Diary of Anne Frank" and "Judgment at Nuremberg," out in 1961, are just two such films that come to mind. But Hier's point that awareness of the Holocaust is greater today than it was 30 years ago is a good one. He's quick to add, though, that the Wiesenthal Center and Moriah Films still have their work cut out for them.

"With the exception of Yad Vashem in Israel, there are still no large centers of documentation on the Holocaust in Europe, and as it recedes into the past it becomes increasingly important to teach the lessons of that tragedy," Hier says. "Anybody who thinks anti-Semitism is a thing of the past should look at what's being put out on the Internet."

"We have no intention, however, of just presenting bleak films about Hitler because Jewish life is about positive things, and we want to present great Jews--and non-Jews--who've contributed to history. We intend to do documentaries on Jewish literary and musical traditions, for instance, and on broader questions of humanity."

In a review of nine new books on the Holocaust recently published in the New York Review of Books, writer Istvan Deak makes the point that "establishing a critical consensus about that memory has proven difficult because in the vast literature of the Holocaust, scholars have disagreed on nearly every major issue." Nonetheless, Moriah Films seems to be making its way, in a loosely chronological manner, through Jewish history of the 20th century.

The first film from the Wiesenthal Center, released in 1981, was "Genocide," which won an Oscar in 1982. Written by Hier, directed and produced by Arnold Schwartzmann, and narrated by Elizabeth Taylor and the late Orson Welles, the film chronicles the events of the years 1933-45.

Nine years later, it released "Echos That Remain" (also written by Hier and directed by Schwartzmann), which attempts to give a sense of Jewish life in Eastern Europe before the Holocaust. Shot in Romania, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary, and including still photographs by the late Roman Vishniac, the film has the quality of a foreboding fable.

In 1994 the center launched Moriah Films with the release of "Liberation," which tells the story of the Allied liberation of the camps--a story that is, in a sense, completed in "The Long Way Home," which premiered this year at Sundance, where it was warmly received.

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