April 21, 2011|By SUSAN DUNNE, sdunne@courant.com, The Hartford Courant

During World War II, when war heroes returned home, their hometowns often recognized them with praise and accolades. But this didn’t happen to all war heroes. Some came home quietly, in disgrace.

“They risked their lives and careers by going against their country’s policies, to save thousands of Jews and other people,” Michael King says. “They didn’t come back to a marching band or a parade. In a lot of cases, there was a price to pay.”

King is referring to diplomats who helped thousands flee from the Nazis by granting them exit papers or helping them escape. This was in defiance of orders from superiors not to issue many visas, to keep a lid on immigration. Many diplomats were found out by their bosses, and their careers were destroyed.

These hero diplomats are the focus of “The Rescuers.” King’s documentary, produced by local businesswoman and philanthropist Joyce Mandell, will be shown Friday, April 29, at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford and on May 12 at the Mandell Jewish Community Center in West Hartford.

The documentary goes beyond World War II. To relate the story to the present day, King brought in Stephanie Nyombayire, a survivor of the 1994 Rwandan genocide (and later a graduate of the Kent School in Connecticut), to help the film’s star, British historian Martin Gilbert, talk to survivors who were helped by the hero diplomats.

“I wanted to kind of demystify what ‘never again’ means,” King says. “In the 20th century, 102 million people have died from atrocities. I’m talking noncombatants.

“The truth is, ‘never again’ is not true … but it’s a beautiful goal to try to reach for.”

Among the diplomats profiled in the film are:

>> Connecticut native Hiram Bingham IV (see accompanying story) and American activist Varian Fry, who helped refugees, among them many artists and writers, flee Marseilles, France.

>> German envoy Georg Duckwitz, who helped 95 percent of Denmark’s Jews escape to neutral Sweden.

>> Turkish diplomat Selahattin Ülkümen, who saved the 2,000 Jews living on the island of Rhodes, Greece.

>> Frank Foley, a British passport control officer in Germany, who even showed up at a death camp to demand a man be released.

>> Dutch businessman Jan Swartendijk, who, with Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara, issued transit visas to Japan for thousands of Lithuanian Jews.

>> Henryk Slawik, a Polish diplomat who was sent to a death camp because he wouldn’t reveal who else was helping to save Hungarian Jews.

>> Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg and Swiss consul Carl Lutz, who saved tens of thousands of Jews in Budapest, Hungary. Wallenberg later was arrested by the Soviets and vanished without a trace.

The film also features a brief appearance by Prince Charles of England, who discusses his grandmother, Princess Alice of Greece, who hid a Jewish family during the war.

King said that out of the many hero diplomats, he chose these because of the variety in their backgrounds — “I wanted a collective group with different nationalities and religions, to make it a universal story” — but also because he was able to find survivors willing to tell their stories.

“One of the beautiful things about the film is that it was able to capture them at the later stages of their lives,” King says. “Their lives are a tribute to these diplomats.”

King, a New London native and graduate of Connecticut College who now lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Bernadette, and son Mathias, was brought into the project by Mandell, who produced three of his previous films, “Bangin,” about gang violence, which won an Emmy; “Breaking the Silence,” about teenage pregnancy; and “Rapping With Shakespeare,” a study of themes found both in Shakespeare and in rap music.

“When we first began to talk about doing this … we asked Michael straight out, as an African American male, why are you motivated to do this movie?” Mandell said in an interview. “His first answer was, ‘I’m an African American male, so I understand crimes against humanity.’

“He then followed up by saying, ‘Steven Spielberg can do ‘The Color Purple.’ Why can’t I do this?'” Mandell says. She concludes: “Either you understand crimes against humanity and the big world of humankind, or you don’t.”

The underlying mystery of the film, King says, is where human goodness comes from.

“There was a genuine goodness in these people — within their spirit, their soul — to rescue people they did not know and did not have a connection to other than that they were geographically in the same location,” King says. “Who does that? Who takes that personal risk?

“How many people do you know, do I know, who would go that far to save another human being?” he said. “Some people did it, and some people didn’t. That’s the mystery.”

THE RESCUERS will be shown Friday, April 29, at 7:30 p.m. at Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, 600 Main St. in Hartford. Admission is free, but for museum members only. Mandell and King will do a Q&A afterward, along with David Bingham, son of Hiram Bingham IV. For details, visit http://www.wadsworthathenum.org.

It also will be shown at Mandell JCC, Zachs Campus, 335 Bloomfield Ave. in West Hartford, on Thursday, May 12, at 7 p.m. The screening will be followed by a panel with Mandell and King, moderated by Deborah Gaudet. It is open to all. The $36 admission will benefit cultural programs at Mandell JCC. For details, visit tickets@mandelljcc.org.