At one point in Shoah, Claude Lanz-mann's epic 1985 documentary about the Holocaust, the director can be seen driving along snowy Queen City streets. He is en route to interview historian Raul Hilberg, a University of Vermont professor who wrote The Destruction of the European Jews.
In Refuge Denied: One Man's Story, 26-year-old Burlington College senior Seth Gordon heads in the opposite direction: to sunny Florida. There, he interviews a Holocaust survivor named Herbert Karliner, who reveals on camera the chilling details of his life. Gordon completed the 23-minute film as his degree project before graduating two weeks ago. Although it's essentially a non-commercial venture, Refuge Denied should look awfully good on his resume.
Shoah is a sprawling masterpiece. Gordon's more modest effort traces a specific event in the long chronicle of genocide. Herbert Karliner, who is now 76, was a boy when his family fled Germany on an ocean liner packed with more than 900 people in similar circumstances. Their ship, the SS St. Louis, set sail in May 1939, because the Cuban government had supposedly agreed to accept them.
After a seven-day wait in the Havana harbor, however, the refugees were turned away. A corrupt official had sold them visas that were not being honored in a climate of anti-Semitism on the Caribbean island. The passengers then tried to find safe haven in North or South America, to no avail; President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor never even responded to telegrams pleading for help.
For five days the vessel, aptly described in one newspaper headline as the "Ship of Walking Dead," cruised along the Florida shoreline with the Coast Guard close behind. Forbidden to unload his human cargo, the captain dared to briefly drop anchor just a few miles from Miami. Karliner remembers seeing the coconuts on the palm trees. That picture-postcard scenario became his vision of freedom.
In mid-June 1939, the "Wandering Jews," as the press dubbed them, had no choice but to return to Europe. But the Nazis soon overran most of the countries that welcomed them: Great Britain, France, Belgium and Holland. About 600 displaced persons from the St. Louis were murdered in concentration camps.
The New Hampshire-born Gordon, whose parents are Burlington natives, was inexorably drawn to this saga. Some of his own ancestors perished during the 1941 Babi Yar massacre, in which the Nazis shot 200,000 Ukrainian Jews, resistance fighters, Gypsies and people with disabilities.
"I first heard about the St. Louis while I was in Hebrew school at about age 12," Gordon recalls. "When I took a college course on the Holocaust, I made a short documentary about people's perceptions of that time. It was a stepping-stone in film production, but I still wanted to do something that went deeper. I wanted to explore the United States' lack of action."
Through UVM's Center for Holocaust Studies, he eventually found Karliner, who has been living in the Miami of his dreams since the end of World War II. "I called him last summer and went down there in July," Gordon says. "I hired a local freelance cinematographer, Ray Etheridge, to shoot it. He did the sound and the lighting, too, so I could concentrate on the interview."
Period newsreels provide additional context. Archival footage is combined with Karliner's family photographs from the fateful voyage, giving the documentary both universal meaning and personal poignancy. In fact, the effect is remarkable. Refuge Denied is far more powerful than its lack of budget and amateur credentials would suggest.
After resettling in France, Karliner was sent to a Parisian children's home for safekeeping. But his parents and sisters lived in what quickly became an occupied zone. They were killed at Auschwitz. "I lost a lot of faith," he recalls. "Where was God?"
Gordon chose not to narrate the tale, relying instead on titles that explain any gaps in the timeline. One evident omission comes when Karliner mentions that he was arrested in 1942. There is no explanation of what happened next. Perhaps that could be revealed in a sequel.
Meanwhile, Gordon is not sure just how he'll pursue a career in filmmaking. "I wish I had an answer," he acknowledges. "I live with a certain amount of ambiguity. More schooling is a possibility. This is a field that probably requires moving somewhere else."
Karliner apparently liked the finished version of Refuge Denied. "The bottom line for me is how much he embraced it," Gordon says. "I couldn't ask for anything more.