With our media landscape filled with historical wartime accounts of various heroes and heroines and their respective call of duties, I honestly thought I heard it all. Then Michael Wolfe entered the picture and proved me wrong. Big time.
Wolfe along with co-producer Alex Kronemer, head up Unity Productions Foundation (UPF). Based out of Silver Springs Maryland, UPF has developed numerous award-winning PBS documentaries with a common theme that threads through their filmography: stories that are anchored by the Muslim perspective.
It was purely by chance five years ago, during their search for World War II stories where Wolfe was told of "a story by a woman who was a 'hidden child' in Paris -- hiding with a French family through out the war." Kronemer heard another similar story from a man whose father was brought into a mosque while on the run from the Nazis. The mosque's Imam proceeded to provide false papers for the fugitive, thus saving the stranger and his family. They both knew that if these two stories existed, there had to be more that had yet to be unearthed. They then came across the story of one woman who took her ideology of working towards a greater good to another level entirely.
Her name was Noor Inayat Khan. A Sorbonne-educated child psychologist and children's book author who was also a Muslim female covert intelligence officer for Winston Churchill's Special Operations Executive (SOE) during World War II.
Directed and produced by three-time Emmy Award winning documentarian, Robert Gardner and narrated by Academy Award winning actress, Helen Mirren, UPF's latest documentary, Enemy Of The Reich presents a richly woven tale, with dramatizations, interviews with various scholars and members of Khan's family, about a young woman, who held an iron-clad resolve to serve her country.
Khan's remarkable journey began in 1940, while as wireless operator for the Britain's Women's Auxiliary Air Force, she was recruited into the SOE as a covert intelligence officer - all thanks to an astute superior who knew Khan's full potential wasn't being realized by simply relegating her to decoding transmissions at the operator desk. And he was right.
"She was critical in the saving Jewish fugitives but also downed US and British pilots, many who were shot down north of Paris and brought in. There were several months where she was arranging for their rescue -- single handedly." Notes Wolfe explaining how her role simply can't be overstated. "Here we have another story -- not a band of brothers -- but a single woman who was raised in Paris and knew it so well, that she could easily manage her role as a Resistance fighter in Paris without being automatically caught".
Khan's commitment to actively serve her country is deeply rooted thanks to her spiritual upbringing. Her father, Hazrat Inayat Khan, was a world-renowned Indian Islamic scholar and the founder of The Sufi Order in the West. He taught the philosophy of Universal Sufism to his North American and European followers who were from the well-heeled society set all on their own respective spiritual journeys. One of the key mantras of Sufism is the belief of service for a greater good, which can be manifested in many ways, be it philanthropy work to support local communities or something bigger in scope. Khan's ideology of service was at a national level as Wolfe notes, "she was very awake to the notion of sacrifice and working for others."
Khan's responsibility as a radio operator -- a job whose lifespan averaged 6 weeks before getting caught by the Gestapo -- was undoubtedly one of the most dangerous in the Resistance. "[She] really stood tall in a very dangerous period and performed courageously and under enormous pressure in what is generally described as the most dangerous position in the Resistance. Germans had sound equipment in locating those [radio] signals. So you were just a sitting duck."
When researching such covert operations, accessibility to documents normally would be a challenge. However remarkably, Wolfe discovered that the SOE managed to keep detailed accounts, which were accessible, including records kept at the National Archives of London where Khan had her own files. "Paper trail for this kind of work was very rare because no one wanted to get caught. The SOE kept records, which weren't released during the war, but after the war there was an official history, with accurate details and facts. And Khan's story are in those records."
The London connection also made sense as the city served as "the originating point for the French resistance, and in many ways a source for a lot of its money in the early years." Explains Wolfe. "Much of the French Resistance, including General de Gaulle was living in London."
While telling this story, Wolfe came to the overall realization about the "vacuum" and "silence" that was apparent when it came to telling stories of Muslims and their role during the Second World War.
"There seems to be a tendency to forget that hundreds of thousands of volunteers from India joined the British forces. Many of them were Muslim, and were decorated and died in great numbers. There also seems to be a tendency to leave out of the narrative, the Algerians and the North Africans, all of who were Muslims and fought on the French side in the tens of thousands. In both cases, these were citizens of countries who were under colonial pressure from the very countries that they decided to serve in this instance, because of what the Nazi propaganda stood for, was so appalling. It was a moral and ethical choice [for them] to look past their agony to serve a higher purpose. It's just a one small part of a very larger story but it should be a part of that story."
Enemy Of The Reich is can be viewed at special screenings being held across the U.S. and Canada and will be televised nationally this fall on PBS in Canada and in the U.S. For more information visit: http://www.enemyofthereich.com