"You can punish her, you can christen her, you can do what ever you want — only keep her alive." With that heartbreaking plea, a Jewish mother in Poland left her three-year-old daughter in a Catholic household where, she hoped, the girl would go undetected by the Nazis and survive the coming holocaust.
Secret Lives: Hidden Children and Their Rescuers During WWII, directed by Oscar-winning documentarian Aviva Slesin, who is herself a childhood Holocaust survivor hidden from the Nazis by a Lithuanian Christian family, is an uplifting, shattering, heartfelt tribute to the Gentile families across Europe from Poland to the Netherlands who risked their own lives to take in and hide Jewish children in their homes. Based entirely on interviews with the Jewish survivors and with their rescuers and parents, Secret Lives explores the devastating impact of the Holocaust even on those who survived it, as well as the nobility and heroism displayed by many during one of the darkest chapters of human history.
Not all the stories are equally inspiring. One survivor remembers the war years with his rescuer family as the happiest time of his childhood; another was always acutely aware of not belonging; still another spent the war sitting trancelike in a chair in a wardrobe. Some of the rescued children were always conscious of their Jewish identity as the reason for their persecution, but one girl absorbed the evidently antisemitic attitudes of her rescuers to such an extent that she refused to believe she was Jewish, and responded to her mother’s return at the end of the war by screaming, "Keep your Jewish hands off me!"
Another source of post-war heartache concerns the fate of children whose parents never returned. Some rescuer families wanted to adopt their children, but the decimated Jewish community wanted surviving Jewish children to be raised in Jewish households. One girl was taken from a loving Catholic family and placed with relatives who abused her.
Slesin records these difficult and ambiguous circumstances with clear-eyed sobriety, yet in the end her film remains a testimonial to human goodness. Lives were saved. It is an "absolute good." The Nazi nightmare ended the day a boy ran down a Dutch street jubilantly crying, "I’m a Jew! I’m a Jew!"
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.