This documentary opens with a passage commenting on how so many people ask why European Jewry let itself be led like sheep to the slaughter, and how people who make such comments clearly weren't there and didn't experience things like being packed together in cattlewagons, starved and tortured for months on end before being deported, reduced to animals, and losing one's entire family and circle of friends. Those people also weren't there to see the quiet dignity and class, the people who gave up a precious bread ration so that a beloved grandmother or little sister might live another day, the people who risked their lives to create schools, the people who kept alive culture in the ghettos through orchestras, theatres, and literary magazines, or the people who had lost everything and yet risked their lives to save others even knowing the huge odds against them. This documentary doesn't bring us the stories of Righteous Gentiles; it brings us the stories of Jews themselves, people who did the impossible with little or no regard for their own lives and safety, because it meant saving the lives of others.
The first story is about Viennese lawyer Dr. Willy Perl, who saw the writing on the wall long before the Nazis invaded Austria. Dr. Perl arranged for countless people to sail to Palestine and bypass the British blockade, taking them away from a place that didn't want them to a place that did want them. He was so successful and persuasive that he even managed to get Nazi permission (over the head of Adolf Eichmann) to allow his operations to continue after they invaded, although given how many people didn't or couldn't see the writing on the wall, not everyone he wanted to help was willing. Ironically, many parents weren't happy with the idea of their children going on this long dangerous voyage to a strange new land because they thought they might die there, whereas in Austria they would be assured of life. He saved 40,000 people in this way.
The second story is about French entertainer Robert Clary (né Robert Max Widerman), perhaps best known for his role on 'Hogan's Heroes.' (His father-in-law was also the legendary entertainer Eddie Cantor.) After deportation from the French camp Drancy, together with his parents, brother-in-law, and some of his siblings (he was the youngest of 14 children), he managed to survive when his singing skills came to the attention of the Jewish girlfriend of the camp commandant. Singing was his lifeline in the camps, and he often had to sing for the S.S. and to take part in concerts put on by other fellow inmates, even knowing that singing and performing used up a lot of vital calories and physical energy that most other prisoners would have preferred to have stored up. He also sang for his fellow inmates when he didn't have to, knowing that this was raising their spirits and keeping their hope up.
The third story is about Recha Sternbuch, the daughter of the chief rabbi of Antwerp and, before the war, a traditional unassuming wife and mother. By the time of the war, she was living in St. Gallen, Switzerland. Over and over again, she helped people across the border and into neutral Switzerland, putting them up in her own house and taking care of them as though they were her own children. Once she even had to violate the Sabbath several times over (and on her only son's bar mitzvah no less) to save the lives of three people who had been taken to a camp in Vichy France; she felt that this were the best bar mitzvah present she could give her son, the lives of these three people and teaching him that saving a life takes precedence over all else. Sometimes she even travelled alone to Germany to plead for people who had been arrested or detained, and every time managed to bring them back safely to Switzerland.
The fourth story is about German/Czech artist Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, who was an artist of quite some renown and an early proponent of using art therapy with troubled youth. In Theresienstadt, she was an art teacher to the children, even though all teaching had to be done secretly. She managed to give these children hope that there might be a tomorrow, and that life should still go on, with happy cheerful paintings and drawings. Sadly, she perished in the gas chambers on 9 October 1944, along with many of her students.
The fifth story is about Lithuanian partisan Leon Kahn (né Leibl Kaganovich), who lost nearly his entire family to the Nazis and their Lithuanian collaborators. Although his parents, sister, and grandmother managed to escape an Einsatzgruppen massacre of the ghetto in Eishystok (he and his brother Ben had already suspected a trap and hidden in an old Catholic cemetery) and to flee to Radom, Poland, where they had relatives who took them in, their luck was short-lived. Not long afterward, they had to go to another ghetto. Leon's mother elected to stay behind with her mother, but Leon, his father, and his two siblings escaped again and joined a community in the woods. After losing his father and siblings at the hands of Polish partisans who were as anti-Semitic as they were anti-Nazi, he kept the promise he'd made to his dying father by avenging all of their murders. Leon joined a group of partisans who blew up bridges, cut down utility poles, and derailed trains, as well as killing Nazis and their Lithuanian, Polish, and Belarussian collaborators.
The sixth story is about Hanka Wajcblum (now Anna Heilman) from Poland, who with her sister Estusia (Ester) and their friends Ala Gertner, Róza Robota, and Regina Safirsztajn took part in the heroic Sonderkommando revolt at Auschwitz in early October of 1944. For over a year they built up a supply of gunpowder to be smuggled to the Sonderkommandos, gunpowder that was used to blow up Crematorium IV and to make grenades to use against the SS when they tried to put down the uprising. The gunpowder was eventually traced back to their factory, and all of the women working there were tortured. Eventually Ala, Róza, Regina, and Estusia were betrayed, but Hanka's friend Marta Bindiger protected her, and she managed to escape the sad fate of the other conspirators, one of perhaps 8 conspirators who survived.
The seventh and final story is about Pinchas Rosenbaum, the son of the rabbi of Kisvárda, Hungary. His parents, like many older Hungarians, thought nothing would happen to them after the Nazis invaded, but Pinchas knew better, and escaped to Budapest. He was a master of disguise, extremely convincing as SS officers, high-ranking members of the Arrow Cross, and even government official István Lukasz. During the final year of the war, he literally saved thousands of people, constantly risking death to confront the Nazis and to bring these people back to a huge ever-expanding safe house.
The documentary ends with a section on what happened to these people after the war (and in the case of Friedl, the recognition and acclaim her artwork and her teachings about the healing benefits art therapy holds for troubled children continue to enjoy). Most of them refused the label hero, and felt they were just doing what they had to do, not wanting any awards, official recognition, or special treatment. Some of them even feel ashamed or embarrassed to be reminded of what they did, since they don't consider themselves heroes or extraordinary people. They went back to living normal lives after the war.
This documentary is a powerful look into how ordinary people can become extraordinary people, and stands out as proof positive that most people decidedly did not go like sheep to the slaughter. There were more ways of resistance besides just shooting a gun and taking active part in something like the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising or the revolts at Treblinka and Sobibór.