There are numerous stories to be told about the Second World War that still haven’t been heard, including some that have been lost to history, remembered only by a select few historians and descendants of those who survived the atrocities. One of these stories is that of businessman Wilfrid Israel, a man who helped save tens of thousands of Jewish lives during the early years of Nazi rule – a name that deserves to be remembered, but has shockingly allowed to have vanished following the barbarity of the war that followed.
Israeli documentarian Yonatan Nir has spent the best part of this decade researching Wilfrid Israel’s heroic efforts to save children from the impending horrors he saw on the horizon. Israel himself was an openly gay, socialist, Jewish businessman who knew that his time in Germany was limited, so took it upon himself to help save as many people in the Jewish community as possible before events began to take a turn more horrifying than Kristallnacht. Nir’s film largely skips over Israel’s personal history (the majority of which is lost to history) to focus on the final ten years that defined him as an important figure in Germany’s pre-war era of Nazi rule – leaving the audience with no doubt that he is a man history urgently needs to remember.
The Essential Link: The Story of Wilfrid Israel shown at the 21st UK International Jewish Film Festival, is a documentary incredibly passionate about its subject matter, but even despite the heroic nature of its subject, still refuses to make itself a mere love letter to the man’s legacy. Interviewees are questioned about how Israel’s department store, the busiest in Berlin, managed to stay open despite the effects of Kristallnacht, which deliberately ran Jewish operated stores out of business. Multiple Nazi officers had accounts at the store, it is announced, with their money helping to ensure Israel could pay for his Jewish staff members to emigrate – and take two years worth of wages with them. But does this count as co-operation with the Nazis? Nir’s skill as a documentarian is that he doesn’t shy away from confronting the complicated issues that surround the heroic figure.
His use of interviews helps draw a clearer picture of his cultural legacy, effortlessly connecting the personal and political. Some of his interviewees were young children who were saved from Germany through the Kindertransport scheme that saved 10,000 children in the nine months leading up the war. Now elderly, these people owe their long lives to Wilfrid Israel, who took it upon himself to save thousands of innocent children during a period when all of Germany’s Jewish leadership had been imprisoned or sent to concentration camps. Another interviewee even remarks that he wished that Israel would have used his money to start the scheme far earlier, which “could have saved 10,000 more lives”. Again, another great example of a documentarian refusing to turn their film into a mere hagiography, making for a more interesting watch as a result- even though you’ll still view Israel as an unsung hero after watching.
The Essential Link: The Story of Wilfrid Israel may have a slight running time, yet it is a worthy representation of one man’s legacy – and will leave you wanting to find out more about the forgotten heroes who tried their best to save the lives of innocent civilians under Nazi rule.
All pictures reproduced courtesy of Yonatan Nir