Oscars awarded to 2 documentaries on Holocaust

LOS ANGELES — The headline honors went to "Titanic" and the stars of "As Good as It Gets." But two Oscars in less glamorous categories illustrated the Holocaust's impact on filmmakers.

"The Long Way Home" took the prize for best documentary feature. The film, produced by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, chronicles the fate of Holocaust survivors in the immediate postwar years and their desperate attempts to reach the Jewish homeland.

In his acceptance speech, the center's dean and founder, Rabbi Marvin Hier, dedicated the award to "the survivors of the Holocaust, who walked away from the ashes, rebuilt their lives and helped create the state of Israel."

Academy Awards host Billy Crystal seemed dumbfounded at the presence of the yarmulke-wearing Hier.

"What a night, when your rabbi wins an Oscar. Unbelievable," Crystal said.

It was the second Oscar for the Wiesenthal Center, whose first documentary, "Genocide," won in 1981.

The production team of "The Long Way Home" is currently rushing to complete the official film of Israel's 50th anniversary celebration, titled "If You Will It."

The other Oscar awarded to a Holocaust theme movie went to "Visas and Virtue," a short film about the true story of a diplomat who paid with his career for saving thousands of Jews.

It honors Chiune Sugihara, who was the Japanese consul in Vilnius, Lithuania, in 1940. As throngs of desperate Jews besieged his office to escape the expected Nazi onslaught, Sugihara, against the direct orders of Tokyo, issued thousands of visas enabling Jews to escape to safety via the then-neutral Soviet Union.

The 26-minute film was produced by Irish-American Chris Donahue and Japanese-American Chris Tashima, who plays the role of Sugihara.

Tom Tugend

JTA Los Angeles correspondent