The scenario was hauntingly familiar: A train-load of German Jews were herded into a compound surrounded by armed guards and chain link fence topped by three strands of barbed wire. As soon as they entered the compound, the frightened, homeless people were asked to strip and step into the showers.
The time was Aug. 5, 1944. But the location was not a Nazi death camp in Germany or Austria, as you might expect. It was instead a refugee shelter for Holocaust victims in Oswego, N.Y., a place that was supposed to represent America's commitment to those "huddled masses yearning to breath free," but which now is only a sorry reminder of an embarrassingly inadequate chapter in U.S. history.Safe Haven (9 p.m., Ch. 7), a Peabody Award-winning documentary produced by PBS station WXXI in Rochester, N.Y., tells the heartbreaking story of America's feeble effort to respond to Nazi atrocities against European Jews. It presents strong documentation to its assertion that President Franklin D. Roosevelt knew of Adolf Hitler's "final solution" to the Jewish "problem" as early as 1942. And it wonders why the best the FDR administration could do was put up one group of 982 refugees in a spartan, concentration camp-like setting while millions suffered death and worse at the hands of the Nazis.
"The historical perspective was difficult for me, in that it changed forever my feelings about Franklin Roosevelt," said "Safe Haven" producer-writer-director Paul Lewis. "It was difficult to come to terms with the fact that FDR did absolutely nothing to end the Holocaust, even though he knew about it. It was angry as a Jew, and frustrated and embarrassed as an American."
That anger comes through clearly in the film, as it probes questions for which there are no easy answers. Why were these refugees treated almost as prisoners? Why did they have to fight for citizenship, education and the right to work? Why did it take so long for FDR to make an effort to provide some safety for persecuted Jews? Then, when he did make an effort, why was it only a token one? And why did he stop here?
Sadly, "Safe Haven" isn't able to provide many answers. But to its credit, it doesn't spend the entire hour dumping on the Roosevelt administration, either. In fact, most of the Oswego refugees who appear in the documentary have only kind things to say about their new "homeland."
"America is the land of opportunity to these people," Lewis explained. "They are as proud as anyone I know of being Americans. Just watch their faces light up when they speak about the Statue of Liberty."
Lewis also has positive things to say about Americans like Joseph Smart, a Utahn who was director of the shelter and who eventually led a national effort to save the refugees from forced return to their homelands, and Oswego's high school principal, who made it possible for the refugee children to attend his school.
And he makes it clear that the real heroes here are the refugees themselves, many of whom have risen above their shabby introduction to democracy to make important contributions to science, literature, medicine and the arts.
But the film leaves you wondering, as former refugee Adam Munz says at one point, "how many millions more if we had rescued them and they had survived would have contributed to society in a meaningful way? Whether as bricklayers or doctors, as train conductors or professors, it doesn't matter. They could have become productive members of society. Instead they are fertilizing fields somewhere."