Secret Lives: Hidden Children and Their Rescuers During WWII


Robin Clifford
Robin Clifford 
Secret Lives
Laura Clifford
Laura Clifford 
Before the start of World War Two there were one and a half million Jewish children living throughout Europe. By the end of that conflict less than one in ten survived. Academy Award winning documentary filmmaker Aviva Slesin tells the moving story of some of these survivors who were saved from certain death by non-Jews despite the deadly threat they faced from the Nazis in "Secret Lives: Hidden Children and Their Rescuers During WWII."

Aviva Slesin, who was one of the children who survived the war because of the kindness of strangers, makes a very personal document about a small subculture spawned by war. For the many millions of Jews who died at the hands of the Nazis the idea of keeping the family together at any cost proved to be catastrophic. But, some Jewish families saw the handwriting on the wall and went against their ingrained need for family unity. They took their beloved children and, trusting to humanity and to chance, placed them in the homes of Christians and other non-Jews.

"Secret Lives" is a straightforward, carefully crafted work that builds its stories in a logical manner. The lives of the survivors before the war is examined as we see the quiet, peaceful life that would soon be totally destroyed. When the war breaks out and it becomes obvious to those too few parents that the winds have changed, Slesin delves into the shock to a child of being torn from your family and dumped into the hands of strangers. We see, as a result, the various ways the children coped with the sudden, wrenching changes. She then examines their lives in hiding and the very different experience of each child. The war's end introduced a whole new set of life parameters for theses children and we see how they handle yet another life altering experience.

Slesin also gives ample attention to the surviving families of the rescuers as they talk about what it was like to have a strange child thrust into their lives, sensing the danger they were in but keeping quiet about it, too. After all, the Nazi-occupied countries they lived in had death laws for those even possessing the knowledge of a Jewish child in hiding. The many interviews span across Europe from Holland to France to Germany, Poland, Lithuania and the United States and are punctuated with personal photos and (not enough) archival footage from the time of the war.

Aviva Slesin has a vested interest, you find out, for making "Secret Lives." She is, as I said, one of the survivors that she is documenting and the film has the underlying story of her journey as Slesin returns to Lithuania, 53 years later, to thank the woman who raised her and kept her safe when she was only 9 months old. The film is remarkable for the number of people the dedicated filmmaker found to give testament to the story of these unknown survivors and their rescuers.

"Secret Lives" is short - about 75 minutes - and an interesting and more hopeful look at the Holocaust. It is scheduled for a short theatrical run but is better suited for the small screen. I give it a B-.

When Academy Award winning documentarian Aviva Slesin ("The Ten Year Lunch:  The Wit and Legend of the Algonquin Round Table") returned to Lithuania after fifty years to meet the woman who had saved her as a baby from the Nazis, it occurred to her that not only must her experience be shared by others, but that it was a story that should be shared as well.  Of the 1.5 million Jewish children living in Europe before WWII, only one in ten survived, many of them due to the heroics of non-Jews, often strangers. Slesin tells her and their story in "Secret Lives: Hidden Children & Their Rescuers During WWII."

This winner of the 2002 Hamptons International Film Festival's "Inspirational Film" award has many moving moments and showcases a diversity of reactions from both the hidden and the hiders.  The archival footage, still photograph, talking head approach becomes repetitive, however, making the documentary, at 72 minutes running time, feel padded to feature length.

Slesin and writer Toby Appleton Perl loosely divide the film into four chapters.  The film begins with a historical perspective before the now grown children and their surviving rescuers recount how they came to be united.  More than one person expresses disbelief that the Germans would do anything to a child, a sentiment that may have kept some people initially resist aiding the Jews.  Newspaper articles of the times warn about the severe punishment for sheltering or feeding Jews and list those did and which concentration camp they were sent to, although a Polish woman speaks of worse - risking watching her entire family being shot before receiving the same sentence.  A Dutch woman explains that the Germans meted out punishment unevenly, treating those they deemed as Aryans, namely the Dutch and Danes, more leniently, but that one always lived in fear nonetheless if one was harboring a Jew.

The stories of the years in hiding are surprising in their diversity.  Michael Nager, five at the time, admits 'I had a very nice time during the war' with a Dutch 'Tante' who made him and his brother shirts from parachute silk.  Ephraim Gat spent most of the war years sitting on a tiny chair within a freestanding closet in a two room apartment, never making a sound.  One woman is still traumatized from being abandoned by her parents and feeling like an outsider with the family she lived with, even though they treated her as one of their own.  Slesin notes in voiceover that while there were those who took in children for profit, labor or to convert them, she is focusing on the majority of cases which were motivated by sheer generosity and courage.  The Polish woman who housed Ephraim in her closet marvels that she would have done anything else, that it was the most natural thing in the world to save a child.  A seventeen year old babysitter who hid two children notes that they probably saved *her* life, as their dependence on her curtailed her dangerous work with the resistance.  Her current day walk through the streets of Nice, revisiting hiding places with her former charges, is a very welcome break from the film's stasis.

With Liberation, ironically, comes many sad stories, as most children were not allowed to stay with the families they had come to regard as their own.  A rescuer's daughter, who previously had expressed resentment at having to share her parents, risk her life and lie to the outside world describes the loss of her 'sister' as a hole torn in the family which was never repaired.  That young girl was 'returned' to an abusive uncle and aunt, her parents having not survived the Holocaust. 'The war started for me after the war,' she tells us.  In the film's most gut-wrenching scene, a mother, grown daughter sitting beside her, recounts how her child had refused to believe she was her mother, saying 'Don't touch me with your Jewish hands.'

The film concludes by documenting many emotional reunions, usually the first such meeting since the war.  We learn one man became the mayor of Amsterdam.  Ephraim's apple-cheeked Polish 'mother' is overjoyed and shows him the chair and closet she still owns.  Even children who were infants and toddlers during their hidden years express strong emotional bonds with their rescuers.

"Secret Lives" would benefit from a little trimming - it seems like some stills of the children are shown upwards of a dozen times.  The film is sparingly punctuated by the occasional effective piece of music (by John Zorn, "In the Mirror of Maya Deren").  This piece is a natural for Jewish film festivals and would be dynamic cut for a one hour PBS slot.


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