The road from Auschwitz to Nuremberg is a twisting, uncertain one. Some of the Nazis who walked it did so in shackles, much deserved. For others, it was a liberation in the most profound sense. Ernest Michel was one of those lucky few.
“I was only 10 years old when Hitler came to power,” says Michel, the executive vice president emeritus of UJA-Federation of New York. “My whole life was affected by living under the cloud of the Nazis.”
Michel would survive Auschwitz to become a journalist covering the Nuremberg Trial in 1945. So it is understandable that he has taken a rooting interest in the restored and — at long last — released film “Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today,” which will play at the New York Film Festival on Sept. 28, a day before its theatrical premiere at Film Forum.
Sandra Schulberg took a gentler, circuitous route to Nuremberg through the film itself, but her connection to it is direct, even intimate. Her father, Stuart Schulberg, was the original director, and her uncle, screenwriter and novelist Budd Schulberg, had been deeply involved in assembling the five hours of film footage that were used by Allied prosecutors in the trial, some of which can be seen in the film itself.
“Nuremberg” was widely shown in Germany during 1948 and 1949, as part of the postwar campaign of de-Nazification and re-education. But due to the Cold War rush to revive the German economy so that the former Third Reich could be a bulwark against Communism, the film was never shown in the United States. As a result, the English-language version of the film was never properly completed, let alone shown to American audiences.
Seeing the film restored by Schulberg and Josh Waletzky inevitably brings back harsh memories for Michel. Born and raised in Mannheim, Germany, he hadn’t planned on a career in journalism, and ultimately chose another path, serving over 60 years with UJA. But even as a child he had been fascinated by history, never expecting that history would have its own plans for him.
“I loved history, I used to cut out newspaper articles and keep them in a scrapbook,” he says. Michel is a remarkably calm and collected man, dapper in a gray suit. He speaks quietly, smiles easily, if sometimes ruefully. “When I was in the sixth grade I was kicked out of school [for being Jewish], and I never went back. I was arrested in 1939 and spent the next 5 ½ years in concentration camps.”
When the camps were liberated and the war ended, Michel found work as an interpreter for the U.S. military government in his hometown. One day, the lieutenant who supervised him introduced him to a Captain Picard –- “even now I remember his name,” Michel notes with a little laugh.
Picard told him that the war crimes trials in Nuremberg would be starting shortly and “we are looking for individuals who are not Nazis,” Michel recalls. What Picard was doing was staffing a new German-language news service, DANA.
“He asked me, ‘Do you know how to write well? If you are interested we will brief you and teach you what you need to know,’” Michel continues. “I accepted the job. My articles were in all the German newspapers and the U.S. service paper ‘Stars and Stripes.’”
His byline read “By Ernest Michel, Auschwitz Survivor # 104995.”
He has come from a screening of the film and he says, “Today, I was very upset [by the film]. The first time I saw it was from a professional point-of-view, but today I saw it as a survivor who had lived through it. I was very shaken by it. That’s why I agreed to be there with Sandra. I feel it’s an obligation; I believe there’s a reason why I survived.”
Schulberg, whose childhood and film career have taken her all over the world, felt an obligation to restore her father’s film, not because it was her father’s film but because its message still resonates, and the film is as topical as if it had been made in the last week rather than in the last century.
She invokes the words of Justice Robert Jackson’s closing statement at the trial: “This trial is part of the great effort to make the peace more secure. It constitutes juridical action of a kind to ensure that those who start a war will pay for it personally. Nuremberg stands as a warning to all those who plan and wage aggressive war.”
And she notes that her father chose to end the film with that statement. She adds, “We all need to ask ourselves the question of how we can promote peace instead of war.
“You know the Torah portion when Abraham is called by God and answers ‘Hineni’ [Here I am],” she says. “That’s why I started this project. It’s a strange echo for me, the idea of being called and whether you’re going to answer. If I hadn’t been a professional filmmaker, it wouldn’t have occurred to me, but if not me, who? It was a choice but it wasn’t.”
Schulberg is 60; the film was not available for 62 years. This project was in some ways a culmination of her own odyssey back to and through Judaism.
“The older you get the more aware you become of your role in the generational chain — my existence in this continuum [of Jewish history],” she says with a quiet passion. “I’ve been on a path long before I saw my father’s film. These paths ended up meeting each other.”
“Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today” will be shown in the newly restored version at the New York Film Festival on Tuesday, Sept. 28: at the Walter Reade Theatre (Lincoln Center Plaza) at 6:15 p.m. The screening will be followed by a panel discussion with participants including Sandra Schulberg, Benjamin Ferencz, who was the chief prosecutor at the Einsatzgruppen Trial, Emilio DiPalma, one of the courtroom guards seen in the film, and prominent human rights advocate Aryeh Neier. The film will have its theatrical open the following day at Film Forum (209 W. Houston St.). For information, call (212) 727-8110 or go to www.filmforum.org.