Interview with Peter K. Rosenbluth, the writer/director of “The Jewish 48’ers: in the American Civil War”
A few months ago I found out about a new documentary that examines the roles of Jewish Hungarian soldiers in the American Civil War. These heroes were fighting earlier in the 1848 Hungarian revolution. Being Hungarian, American and Jewish myself I was fascinated by the topic and learned a lot from the movie. I highly recommend it and right now you can watch the whole movie on YouTube. I wanted to learn more about the project so I interviewed its creator, Peter Kovacs Rosenbluth. Enjoy his answers below, support his current and future movies by following the links at the end of this page.
About the film, The Jewish 48’ers: in the American Civil War
- Why did you make the “The Jewish 48’ers: in the American Civil War” film? What’s your purpose with it?
I felt that Jewish military history is completely undervalued and barely discovered on the screen. The 19th century of Europe gave an opportunity for the Jews to pick up the arms, and to prove they are as brave as any other gentile soldiers when the Spring Revolutions of 1848 began. History proved the Jews were fierce warriors as their Maccabean ancestors. It’s also important to say that 1848 had a major role in the American Civil War as well as in American Jewish life. These democratic revolutions were although crushed, many veterans; Jewish and gentile left Europe to continue their life in a free country. Jews, former soldiers and intellectuals of the 48 revolutions were devoted to save the unity of the land that adopted them. More importantly they were strongly involved in the anti-slavery movement and majority of the 48’ers fought for the Union. My purpose with the film is to establish a memory for these heroes, to give pride for the Jewish people throughout the world, for our non-Jewish friends to present that our forefathers fought on the front-lines and of course, to combat the Anti-Semitic lies on Jewish history.
- Having watched the film I can tell that there are two kinds of serious work put in it. First, there is a lot of good research done, it is a rather scholarly work. At times the movie feels like the visualization of a peer-reviewed academic essay. (Which I personally enjoy as having spent lot of time in Universities having earned 3 BA and one Masters.:-) What would you tell to those who might feel intimidated (or bored) by this approach, why should “average”, i.e. non-academic people watch the movie; what can they get out of it?
This was a huge challenge, we had to think of two audience. The experts who have seen hundreds of civil war movies and wanted to learn something new, something more that has never been told before. The academic approach is for them. On the other hand, we tried to tell the story in a very exciting way, with the combination of different arts such as colourising black and white civil war photos, including fantastic battle scenes and combining them with archive materials plus entertaining visual effects. The first part of the film is about 1848 and it’s something that has not really been in the American media, so it could definitely tell new information for both groups.
- Second, you unearthed and included in the movie a lot of original documents, pictures, drawings, paintings, maps and combined these with interviews with experts and footage that looks like reenactment or segments from other movies. The blend of these works well and makes a visually coherent movie too. I am curious about the reenactment looking scenes; were these utilizing stock footage or you shot your own Civil-War era scenes?
Exactly it’s how we wanted to present the story. I had my own collection and we also discovered many new materials in the American Jewish Archives, special thanks to Dr. Gary Zola and his entire team for helping us. Regarding the battle scenes in the civil war I approached Kevin Hershberger who’s producing highest quality of battle footage for his clients such as the History Channel, BBC etc. I explained what I wanted/needed and also the importance of the topic and mentioning I am a first-time filmmaker with a very small budget. Kevin was very understanding and I could choose anything I liked from hundreds of hours of footage he had shot. It’s possible one or two might have been showed somewhere, but it’s getting common today. All the reenactment were absolutely authentic.
- How important you think the role of Jewish 48ers is or should be to the identity of American Jewry? How about Hungarian Jewry?
Very important, for example praying in our native language comes from the 48’er/Reform ideology. Rabbi David Einhorn is a huge name for the American Jews, but many don’t know about his 48’er past. The same goes for Rabbi Adolf Hubsch who himself fought on the front-line as a lieutenant in 1848 and later became a distinguished rabbi of Ahavath Chesed (Central Synagogue Manhattan). I think the American Jewry would be truly surprised to find out how much their ancestors had given to make a better world, both in Europe and in America!
- You introduced about 10 Jewish 48er in the movie. Do you have a favorite, is any single one of them stand out from the others? Why?
Each of these 48’ers were very important in the civil war and many were so different from the other. I personally find General Knefler the favourite who rose to the rank of brevet brigadier general. His second wife was a Rosenbluth and Knefler was born in Arad like my 48’er relative called Samuel Rosenbluth too. I would not be surprised to find out if he was a relative by marriage – the research is still ongoing, but certainly exciting.
- Can you share any funny or interesting story from the process of making this film? Were you surprised or rejected in a memorable way when you approached someone to collaborate with?
I think I can, as a first-time filmmaker the fundraising was a huge challenge. I didn’t know much about it and I contacted the Ford Foundation to entirely sponsor the film. It was truly the beginning, we even did not have the colourised photos back in time, just the idea itself. They never answered. Now, I have a lot better idea on how to raise funds. Everyone seemed to like the film, but unfortunately very few were committed to help. It was a disappointment, but I can understand as it’s always a risk to sponsor a new starter and the fundraising competition is huge. I just need to do better and it will work better.
- Why did you release the film on YouTube for free and will you keep it available there?
I am very devoted to Jewish history/heritage and the idea to bring this story onto the screen came from the bottom of my heart. I realised it could get to the public more widespread in this way. It’s also my first film and I plan to make more films on Jewish history. Perhaps those who did not donate before, now can see what an amazing work we made, and that a project like this is worth to be supported. Not only we released it free, but half of the film was financed by myself and my childhood friend Peter Banyavari. “If you will, it is no dream” said Theodor Herzl and I think we made our dream true, when we finished this documentary.
- What are your hopes/plans for the movie? Both in terms of distribution (e.g. streaming or DVD or cable TV…?) and reach (e.g. become part of a curriculum, every American/Hungarian/Jewish kid/grownup should watch it…).
I keep submitting the film to Jewish and documentary film festivals and I certainly would be glad to receive a distribution offer whether it’s DVD or online like Netflix. I also offer the film for Jewish communities, societies, historical groups etc. for educational use. I also hope that this film (as it had received very positive feedback from top scholars) is now worth to be acknowledged and that the next film would be sponsored or would go straight to distribution. The next will be a colourised documentary on The German and Austro-Hungarian Jews who fought in The Great War, and tragically the ones who survived the war were later murdered in the Holocaust. We have the most advanced technology to colourise old black and white footage. It will be also the first colourised film on the Holocaust to the best of my knowledge.
- Is there a message of the movie (and its heroes) that can apply directly to today’s social issues, e.g. to Black Lives Matter?
Absolutely, the Jewish 48’ers did not hesitate a second to fight the slavery and racism in America. August Bondi who rode with John Brown was already in the abolitionist movement prior to the civil war. Jews did stand up for equal rights in 1848 (like abolishing the institution of the serfdom) in the the civil war to stop the slavery in America and also in the 1960’s. I feel now that our past is forgotten by everyone. The way I see today’s American Jewish community they share the same values of the 48’ers (many) without knowing about them. I have Black friends and they’re truly surprised too to find out the historic past, the way our ancestors fought the slavery.
About the movie’s creator, Peter Rosenbluth Kovacs
- Say a few world about yourself. What’s your background; are you a historian, genealogist, or filmmaker or … ? What are your academic or film industry credentials?
I started my studies at the National University of Public Service in Hungary and I was to become a border force lieutenant. I know of those who studied in armed forces institutions (like Kevin Hershberger himself, and the experience like that helps making authentic battle scenes or military history movies.) In parallel with my university studies I enrolled into a two years long supply chain course and that brought me to the UK where I developed myself to strategic buyer in less than 1,5 years. I used my passion, creativity, business experience and military knowledge/interest to make this film. (I also did a short IDF [Israel Defense Forces] program in the past which I think helped.) I am also very active in genealogy and that helped me finding some truly valuable resources.
- Do you consider yourself Hungarian, American, Jewish, all/some of the above?
I would say all of the above since I visited the USA last year I feel a bit of an American. I presented at the 39th IAJGS Conference on Jewish Genealogy and the atmosphere I experienced in the American Jewish life was astonishing. Having lived 3 years in England too also makes me feel a little bit British, I even drink the tea with milk now!
- How did your answer for the previous question influence you making this film?
It did influence me a lot. I had at least one 48’er relative and later most of the Rosenbluth family were killed in the Holocaust. I just could not let the Jewish history/heritage disappear. I decided I’d bring their stories to the public and I plan to keep making Jewish documentaries.
About the website / framework of the film: JewishDocumentaries.info
- Are there any other documentaries in the pipeline? Can you share anything about it/them?
The next film will be about the German and Austro-Hungarian Jewish soldiers who fought in The Great War. It will be also a Holocaust documentary, as many who survived the hell of the war were later betrayed and killed by their former comrades in Auschwitz and in different death camps. It’s a topic that literally makes me cry…but it has to be told. A memory has to be set up for those loyal Jews who were such great warriors of their countries and the reward was murdering them. Anna Frank’s story is even more tragic bearing in mind that his father was a lieutenant in the German Army in the trench-warfare of 1914-1918… and this is what he got for his service? People need to see what happened in colour to realise what was the horror of the war, the betrayal and the Holocaust. We have the latest technology to colour footage. It’s a different work, we won’t need reenactment, but 4 seconds of footage restoration and colourisation can take up to 4 hours.
- What is the best way to support this film and your future films?
Spreading the word that a project like this exists and it’s worth the support of those foundations and donors who can help and find our approach as important as myself. People who did not have faith in this movie are now surprised, even one of our sponsors who did not think we’d make such a great movie! We’ll set up soon a fiscal sponsorship agreement for the next film (just like with The Jewish 48’ers) with the IDA (International Documentary Association) which is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organisation and donations will be tax-deductible. I am happy to be contacted by those who’re willing to help at email@example.com
- Do you have a request or message to readers of Jewishfilmfestivals.org?
I hope they enjoyed both the film and this interview as it did let me express some of my deepest feelings for this topic. Thank you Gabor for this. I’d like to ask the readers to spread the word about the film, include the film into their Jewish film festivals (it’s so much better in the cinema) and I’d be happy if they contacted me regarding the next film. Preserving our heroic history will preserve our identity too.