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"Liberating" History

By Kenneth A. Katz

When the emperor has no clothes, it's a problem. When no one seems to care, it's a fiasco. And when it happens at Harvard it's a downright catastrophe.

The emperor, in this case, is the film "The Liberators," a PBS documentary being shown tonight at Sanders Theater. The film is about the all-Black Army units that it says helped liberate Dachau and Buchenwald, two of the biggest concentration camps in Nazi Germany.

The sponsors of tonight's event--President Rudenstine, Dean Epps, and the Afro-Am Department--are billing the event as "A Special Moment" in Black-Jewish relations on campus. Jesse Jackson will introduce the film. Following the screening will be a panel discussion that includes Law School assistant professor Charles J. Ogletree, professor Henry Louis Gates, Rabbi Sally Finestone, student representatives of Hillel and the Black Students' Association, a Black veteran and a Holocaust survivor.

But as recent articles by Jeffrey Goldberg in The New Republic and The Forward have pointed out, the Black units featured in the film played no role in capturing Dachau or Buchenwald. That's the small problem. The big one is that most people--at Harvard and elsewhere--hold the noxious attitude that the film's historical inaccuracies are less important than its political message.

"It's a lie," says E.G. McConnell, one of the veterans of the 761st Tank Battalion who's quoted in The New Republic.

McConnell--shown in the film during his "return" to Buchenwald with another veteran and a survivor--says he stopped cooperating with the film's producers when he began to doubt their accuracy. "We were nowhere near those camps when they were liberated. I first went to Buchenwald in 1991 with PBS, not the 761st."

"It's totally inaccurate," says a former captain in the 761st. "[The men] couldn't have been where they say they were because the camp was sixty miles away from where we were on the day [of liberation]."

And the battalion's former commander says: "In our after-action reports, there is no indication that we were near either one of [the camps]....[We] do not claim to have liberated those camps." Nine other veterans of the 761st, including the president of its veterans' association, also deny having liberated Dachau or Buchenwald.

The former commander of the 183rd Combat Engineer Battalion, which the film says helped liberate Buchenwald, says his want visited that camp only after it had been liberated. And another former member of the 183rd says he cannot remember precisely when he arrived at the camp.

As for the Holocaust survivors the film quotes as saying they were liberated by the 761st, at least three of them can no longer remember when the first encountered Black soldiers. "It hard to say now," says one. "I know there were Black soldiers in the camp, but I don't know when exactly."

The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has issued a statement saving there is no "positive written evidence" that the 761st helped liberate Dachau or Buchenwald.

Robert H. Abzug '67, the University of Texas professor listed in the film's credits as its "historical adviser," says he was never consulted about the content of the film which he says is rife with inaccuracies. "The [producers] were taken in by the romance of the thing," says Abzug. "They didn't know how to get their facts straight."

While Nina Rosenblum, one of the film's producers, says the narration of the "return" scene with McConnell "may be misleading," she defends the film's historical accuracy. The film's critics, she says, are "[of] the same mentality that says that the Holocaust didn't happen."

Well, not really.

Even Holocaust revisionists at least claim to respect history. "The Liberators" can't even claim that. Instead, the film appropriates history for its own political purposes. It values political expedience over truth, feel-good messages over historical accuracy. In this case, the message is a good one. But it's grounded in the dangerous beliefs that the truth has no intrinsic value and that the ends whatever and whosever they are --justify the means.

This Orwellian logic makes sense to Peggy Tishman, one of many New York Jewish leaders willing to sacrifice truth for the greater good. As she told The New Republic: "There are a lot of truths that are very necessary. This is not a truth that's necessary."

And Ogletree, who will moderate this evening's panel discussion, has no problem valuing political concerns over history. As he told The Crimson "The film is not the most important thing I think what's most important to students to have a sense that there is a community with a high level of tolerance working to understand our unique characteristics.

To be sure, "The liberators" tells a nice story. So nice that the film was the center piece of a mind December event at New York's Apollo Theater, aimed at improving Black Jewish relations in the city and attended by many of New York's prominent Jews and Blacks (including Jackson). So nice that a number of philanthropists are jockeying for the honor of buying tapes of "The Liberators" for New York public schools.

So nice that many people, including the film's Harvard sponsors, have bought into its pernicious philosophy that repairing relations between Blacks and Jews overrides all other concerns, including concerns for historical accuracy.

But is it really possible to build a better future between Blacks and Jews based on a fabricated past? Do we really want to nurture an honest relationship with a pack of lies?

I don't think so. And those students who (like me) will attend tonight's event -all, no doubt, with good intentions should keep that giant caveat in mind.

The film didn't have to be this way. All Black Army units did help liberate some concentration camps, according to the Holocaust Memorial Museum. Indeed, the 761st helped liberate the smaller camp of Gunskirchen, while the all-Black 703rd Tank Battalion helped liberate a subcamp of Buchenwald.

And despite discrimination in the U.S. Army, Black soldiers performed heroically when faced with the more challenging task of fighting the Germans. The 761st has an outstanding battle record--particularly during the Battle of the Bulge--for which it received a Presidential Unit Citation. The citation, by the way, did not mention any role played in liberating Dachau or Buchenwald.

For Blacks' significant role in helping win World War II, and Jews' significant role in the Civil Rights movements, both sides should be proud. For bringing "The Liberators" to Sanders Theater, however, Harvard should be ashamed.

History should serve as the basis of a Black Jewish dialogue--not an emperor with no clothes.

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