Louis Lentin's No More Blooms, like his last documentary, Dear Daughter, uncovers a moral failure on the part of this State which has been ignored for many years, in this case the attitude of the authorities here towards Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazi onslaught between 1933 and 1945.
No More Blooms (the film is prefaced by Mr Deasy's remark in Ulysses that: "Ireland, they say, has the honour of being the only country which never persecuted the Jews . . . And do you know why? . . . Because she never let them in") is scrupulously objective in its treatment of the very different political, social and cultural imperatives of the time. But the thrust of the documentary is clear; like many other European states, Ireland must bear some responsibility for its ungenerous response to the growing refugee crisis in the 1930s, and this response was due in part to anti-Semitism in the Government departments concerned.
"To be entirely fair, Ireland had only recently gained its independence, had been through a civil war, and was a Catholic country with a Catholic ethos. The attitude was that this is the country we fought for, and it's going to be ours," says Lentin, who believes that very few refugees, "perhaps a thousand, to add to the existing population of 4,000," would have come to Ireland in any case. The records don't reveal how many visa applications were received, "but there's no indication that they were being besieged".
0Even the national tradition of pulling strings met with little success in getting people to safety. In the documentary, Dr Joe Briscoe remembers how his father Robert, a veteran of the War of Independence and well-known Fianna Fail TD, failed to gain entrance for his aunt, who was trapped in Berlin. She died in the camps.
The most obvious villain in this story is Charles Bewley, ambassador to Germany during the 1930s, a Nazi sympathiser who reported to the Government that: "Jewish emigrants in the countries in which they have been permitted to enter have created and are creating grave moral scandals and are a source of corruption of the population among which they dwell." The retention of Bewley in his position until 1939 is described by Prof Dermot Keogh of UCC in the film as "one of the worst personnel decisions since the declaration of the State."
The policies pursued, in particular by the Department of Justice, ensured that only a tiny number of Jewish refugees managed to enter the country. There is a danger, of course, in judging actions in hindsight. How many people in the mid-1930s would have believed that the Nazis were about to embark on a policy of planned extermination of the entire Jewish population of Europe? "I don't think anyone believed it," says Lentin. "If you had been told in 1939 that when the war started, the policy of genocide would be implemented, would you have believed it? But the Irish should have known enough about what was going on to be more sympathetic in their policy. People were too concerned with their own affairs. What concerned them was an influx of aliens. The big excuse at the time was: `we are a country of emigration, not immigration', but right through the 1930s, the writing was on the wall. I would have thought that any government, Ireland included, where there was supposed to be an ethos of Christian charity, should have behaved in a more moral way."
By the early 1940s, with the Nazis in control of most of continental Europe, there was little hope of getting many people out anyway, but there was a sufficient core of anti-Semitism here to keep the pot boiling. No More Blooms notes the overtly anti-Semitic and xenophobic attitudes expressed by some political and business groups during the war, which were used by the Department of Justice to bolster its argument that accepting more refugees would incite further anti-Jewish sentiment.
"The time when a real difference could have been made, though, was really in the 1930s, when people were clamouring to get out. During the war there was also the feeling that the Germans might win, and that we should be careful. I've been told that the Germans had a list of the Jews in Ireland. It's a sad thing to have to say, but I do think that if the Germans had occupied Ireland, the Government would have handed over its Jews. But of course, it wouldn't have been alone in that.
"Irish people still have this ambivalent attitude towards the Jewish congregation," believes Lentin. "They're not really accepted as being Irish. It's asked how can you be both Irish and Jewish, but never how can you be both Irish and American? I'm an Irishman first and Jewish by belief. But there is still that attitude here. A lot of Jews kept their heads down and said let's not make too much noise. Because there is that feeling that you're a guest. I don't feel that, but many Jews I know do."
No More Blooms is being shown by RTE next week as part of a strand of themed programmes on the subject of Ireland's attitude to refugees. Another documentary, Operation Shamrock, focuses on the experiences of over 500 German children who were brought to Ireland in 1946. The comparison between the generosity shown in that case, and the attitude towards the Jews is fairly damning, surely?
"Of course the German children should have been brought here. There's no reason why not. But why adopt that attitude in one case and not another? The answer seems obvious - anti-Semitism. It's also telling that the possible bombing of Rome during the war evoked far more of a response from de Valera."
The attitude of de Valera himself to the issue is obscure. Acting both as Taoiseach and Minister for External Affairs during the war, his chief concern was obviously the maintenance of neutrality. "De Valera had too much on his hands. I'm inclined to think that he was right to keep the country neutral, but that doesn't excuse the moral failure of the Irish Government in this instance. He never put his foot down or said that we must do something. Ireland was not the only country which failed to act, but it lost a golden opportunity to behave in a moral, Christian fashion."
No More Blooms is on RTE 1 at 9.30 p.m. next Wednesday