After D-day in June of 1944, when American troops began to move through Europe, the U.S. Office of War Information set up an Overseas Film Division to produce a series of short documentaries. As one of the directors described them, they were intended to “show the people in allied and liberated countries what life in America was really like.” Under the overall title of “The American Scene,” fourteen such films were produced for foreign distribution only. Among them was The Cummington Story, which dealt with the gradual absorption of the members of the refugee hostel into the New England town. Given a musical score composed especially for the movie by Aaron Copland, it featured Carl Sangree, the founder of the refugee hostel, as the narrator, and my uncle, Werner Königsberger, as the main character, albeit under the name Joseph.(Possibly “Werner” struck too German a note.) Another woman from the hostel, not my Aunt Grete, played the role of his wife Anna.
Readers of this blog can view The Cummington Story at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0HHbC7o8xOQ It begins at a town meeting with the narrator announcing, somewhat mysteriously, that Joseph is to speak there for the first and last time. Before he does so, however, there is a flashback to the arrival of the refugees amid the initial hostility of the locals. With Sangree’s assistance, they find roles for themselves in the town’s life and culture. Finally, their integration seemingly complete, they are seen sharing the high spirits of the entire community at the Cummington State Fair. The film then returns to the town meeting for Joseph to have his say. He had come to say good-by, the narrator explains. “He would be leaving soon to return home to help rebuild his own country, but would take with him many things he had learned in Cummington.”
The film’s ending always stunned me. Wouldn’t it have been more inspiring to depict the reality of Werner Königsberger’s experience in the U.S.—that he and his wife had not only settled comfortably in New England, but prospered? Anomalies in the film shed some light on the purpose of this finale. For instance, it is never made clear what the group of foreigners is taking refuge from. When they arrive, they are merely depicted as homeless and different. Appearing at the church service, they are described as belonging to many different “churches and denominations—Catholic, Jewish (sic) and Protestant,” and this is the only time the word “Jewish” occurs. In only one scene is the situation in Europe referred to directly. When the fine printer from Austria pages through some of the precious volumes in the library at the homestead of the American poet William Cullen Bryant, the narrator explains that many of the books were the same “as those burned on the streets of his home town.”
The omissions made me realize that the subject of the film was not the refugee’s plight at all, but the country in which they had found refuge. Meant to be shown overseas exclusively, the movie was selling America. And to that end, there was a handy visual guide underpinning several of the scenes. In January 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt had given the famous speech in which he defined the essential “four freedoms people everywhere ought to enjoy”–freedom of speech and of worship; freedom from want and fear. These concepts were further popularized in 1943 when Norman Rockwell illustrated them in the four oil paintings that then appeared on the covers of The Saturday Evening Post. (When the pictures subsequently toured the country, they helped raise millions in war bonds.)
In The Cummington Story, the scenes of the town meeting,(freedom of speech), the church service (freedom of worship), and the mother tucking in her child (freedom from fear), were almost direct Rockwell quotes. Only the original image for freedom from want—a lavish Thanksgiving dinner—was replaced with the bounty of the harvest at the State Fair. These were the messages Joseph was to take back “home.”
The film was made in the autumn of 1944. By then, brave couriers had sent some information to the U.S. about the existence of Nazi extermination and concentration camps, but there had been little coverage of these revelations in the press. The shocking physical reality of what went on there did not become part of the national consciousness until the liberation of Dachau in the spring of 1945. Very few Austrian Jews would have had any desire to return home after those revelations. And the ones who made the attempt to resume their old lives were faced with reluctant Austrian government officials. Their attitude was succinctly summed up by the comment made by Minister of the Interior Oskar Helmer in 1948. When confronted by Jewish claims to property seized during the war, he was quoted as saying “I’m for dragging things out as long as possible.” (“Ich wäre dafür, dass man die Sache in die Länge zieht.”)