It’s fair to say the story of the 1976 raid in Entebbe is well-known.
But there is one character who might not be as well-known, and filmmaker Boaz Dvir is trying to change that.
Dvir, an assistant professor at Penn State University and filmmaker behind the award-winning documentary A Wing and a Prayer, was in Philadelphia on April 4 to discuss his latest venture: the story of French business consultant Michel Cojot.
He gave an audience at the Brownstein Group an overview of his upcoming film, Cojot: A Holocaust Survivor Takes History Into His Own Hands, and showed some of the 80 hours of footage he has as he begins editing and post-production.
It began a few years ago when Dvir was teaching in Paris as part of a Columbia University program, and he had to work on a French project.
He decided to make a short film about Entebbe, in which an Air France plane was hijacked.
“I started to make this film and I kept hearing the name Michel Cojot,” Dvir recalled. “I have studied Entebbe quite extensively and never heard the name, and they kept bringing it up because, it turns out, he played a pivotal role in the success of the operation.”
During the hijacking, the multilingual Cojot — one of the plane’s French Jewish passengers — served as a translator for the hijackers, befriending them and getting inside their heads. He negotiated for humanitarian conditions like mattresses, food and anti-malaria pills and for the release of 150 hostages.
After his own release on the Friday before the Sunday raid, he was debriefed by Mossad agents, and gave them information they felt was “credible, accurate and comprehensive,” Dvir said. “It was enough to convince the chief of staff and then the prime minister to give the operation the green light.”
Cojot knew the terrorists’ routine and roles, what ammunition and explosives they had, what their relationship was with the Ugandan soldiers, when they went to sleep and more.
“He was the only guy who knew that,” Dvir said. “He was able to really pay attention to everything. He drew a map. He took photos in secret. He delivered the information that allowed Israel to [both] green-light the operation and carry it out precisely.”
But the reason he performed these heroic deeds — and the reason he was on the hijacked plane in the first place — had a lot to do with his upbringing, which Dvir will outline in the first part of the film.
Cojot was a hidden child of the Holocaust, Dvir said, without a real sense of his Jewish identity. In 1943, the Nazis deported his father, with whom he was very close, to Auschwitz, where he ultimately died.
“So Michel Cojot blamed Klaus Barbie for his dad’s death,” Dvir said, as it was the Gestapo chief’s men who caught his father. “Then, when Germany and France failed to extradite him because he was living in Bolivia and protected, he got angry and decided to do something about it.”
Cojot relocated his family to Caracas and posed as a freelance journalist and scored an interview with a man who he believed was Klaus Barbie, though he had a different name. He got Barbie to admit who he was and what he did in the Holocaust.
“Michel knew he had his guy. He followed him with a pistol with the intent of killing him,” Dvir said. “But he hesitated and decided not to do it because he felt if he shoots, then he’s as bad as the Nazis.”
He and his family went back to France, but Cojot was a broken man. His wife divorced him, and the only thing that kept him alive was a rekindling of his Judaism, Dvir said.
One summer, he decided to do some pro bono work for an Israeli company and took along his eldest son, Olivier, then 12.
They ended up aboard the doomed Air France flight.
“It was on the flight back they got hijacked,” Dvir said. “He was in Entebbe with his son. And he always felt bad that he was not with his dad when his dad was taken away and now here he is in Entebbe with his son, he’s a broken man, he wasn’t sure if he did the right thing with Klaus Barbie. So he saw Entebbe as his chance to redeem himself and to become a hero, so he did.”
It helped that he was brilliant and multilingual, of course, but there was something else, too, said Dvir.
“It became clear to me that one of the reasons he was so successful in Entebbe was … because he no longer cared if he lived or died,” Dvir said. “He more than risked his life — [it] was almost like he willingly gave it up. Because of that he was able to speak to the hijackers on their level. He never cowered to them, he never showed them any fear because he didn’t fear them.”
For the film, Dvir has interviewed former hostages, Cojot’s son Olivier, his ex-wife and former girlfriends, Nazi hunters and others to tell the story. Now he just has to get it to a reasonable length before its 2018 release on PBS.
Then, Dvir hopes, Cojot’s story will inspire others.
“Seeing him go through it can embolden young people today, can show them it’s
not easy but it can be done and it’s OK — not everybody has it all figured out,” Dvir said. “Even this guy, a hero, he didn’t have it all figured out but that’s part of the journey … you’ll find your meaning, you’ll find your purpose, you’ll find your identity. It doesn’t come automatically.”
Contact: [email protected]; 215-832-0740