Who do we have to thank for Hitler's eventual defeat? What was the turning point of World War II? Who, by his actions during the war, inspired Chaim Weizmann and David Ben-Gurion, Israel's early leaders? The answer, according to the Simon Wiesenthal Center's stirring new documentary, Walking With Destiny, is Winston Churchill.
Churchill, who died in 1965, is hardly a forgotten figure. To the contrary, there is a large and healthy Churchill industry producing new books, one after another, season after season.
To some extent, Winston Churchill: Walking With Destiny, which opens Nov. 5 in New York and Los Angeles, was born out of historian Martin Gilbert's 2007 work, Churchill and the Jews (Gilbert served as a historical consultant to the film). Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the founder of its Academy Award-winning film division, Moriah Films, along with Richard Trank, the center's media director and Moriah's executive producer, were inspired by the book to make a film that would be, in one sense, larger than a parochial story about Churchill, but in another sense, narrower, focusing on the years 1940 and 1941 -- as Hier called it, "the most dangerous moment." What Hier wanted to tell was the story of "the man who saved Western civilization."
As Trank explained, the more he got into the research, the more he was struck by how, even into the 1930s, Churchill stood virtually alone in seeing the danger Hitler posed and in speaking out about his revulsion for Hitler's racial policies concerning the Jews. Trank, who also produced and directed "Walking With Destiny," grew up in Downey, California, the son of one parent who fled the Holocaust just before the war, and the other whose family immigrated earlier to South Africa, where they were Yiddish actors. He earned his bachelor's degree from UC Berkeley and did graduate work at USC. Trank has been the Simon Wiesenthal Center's media director and the executive producer of Moriah Films, the center's Jack and Pearl Resnick Film Division, since 1984. He was the producer of the Academy Award-winning documentary, "The Long Way Home."
Moriah has often focused on Jewish figures, but "Walking With Destiny" instead profiles a person to whom the Jewish people, as Hier put it, "owe a great debt of gratitude."
The film effectively shows the power of Churchill's uncompromising stance against Hitler -- from before the war and during the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force at Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain and the Blitz -- and his efforts to gain the support of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the reluctant American people.
Still enormously stirring are Churchill's words delivered in his deep, sonorous tones, calling on the British to fight on, casting the conflict in heroic terms, never minimizing the difficulties ahead or how great the stakes were, but assuring the British people that even in the face of death and destruction, they must "carry on." It is hard not to be moved, even today, hearing Churchill's words, and seeing the vintage images of bombed-out, burned and rubble-strewn London.
Here was Churchill, already in his late 60s, a patrician (or, as he might be cast today, "elitist"), ready to lead the people by example, always out in the streets soon after the German bombs fell, talking to people, helping to clear rubble, engaging in the fight, at one with his people -- lifting their spirits, hardening their resolve and assuring victory by refusing, alongside them, to be defeated.
Perhaps it's just coincidence that "Walking With Destiny" is being released around the time of the Kristallnacht anniversary. But the message is clear. As Hier put it, without Churchill, nothing that is sacred in Jewish life would have survived.
The relevance to today, although never stated explicitly in the film, is also clear -- and this is why I recommend this film whole-heartedly and hope that it will be seen by as many students and schoolchildren as possible. It shows what it means to stand on principle, against all odds in the toughest of times -- and that although there are many politicians, only a few are true leaders.
"I would hate to think what the world would be," Hier said, "if there had not been a Winston Churchill."
The above article originally appeared in print in the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles issue of November 5, 2010