There are many amazing aspects about Aviva Slesin’s “Secret Lives: Hidden Children and Their Rescuers During WWII,” a documentary that details the lives and memories of adults survivors who, as Jewish children, were taken in by gentile families during the years of the Holocaust. But perhaps most amazing are the things it is not. It is never sentimental, never “easy” and never avoids the exceedingly difficult, even anguished questions that are at the heart of its subject. And as it grapples with these nearly unbearably painful issues, “Secret Lives” — which opens today at Manhattan’s Quad Cinema — remains clearheaded and emotionally generous, guiding us through this maze of complicated personal histories.
At the beginning of World War II there were 1.5 million Jewish children living in Europe. Fewer than 10% survived, and some of those who did had been “rescued” by Protestant or Catholic families — of varied economic, class and political backgrounds and in Germany, Poland and the Netherlands — and brought up safely during the war. After being reunited with their birth families, many hidden children, including Slesin herself, lost contact with the women and men who had protected them, often placing themselves at considerable risk, even death. “Secret Lives” focuses on half a dozen of these survivors. Through interviews, home movies, montages of family photos and carefully chosen archival footage, Slesin reconstructs not so much the details of their “hidden” lives — many of those details are vague for some interviewees, all of whom were young children at the time — but rather the emotional and psychological nuances of their extraordinary experience.
In the film’s first half, Slesin and writer and co-producer Toby Appleton Perl present us with a series of heartwarming and inspirational portraits of the adult children, sometimes with their birth parents, and the families who took them in. As a filmmaker, Slesin has the great sense and sensitivity to let these stories tell themselves. As they reflect and refract one another — the film’s narrative is not linear, but a series of self-reflective family portraits — they generate a powerful tapestry of altruism, courage and faith. Again and again we are told that these rescuers did what they felt they had to do because of faith, political commitment or a simple, deeply felt sense of humanity. (The film also makes it clear that other families took in Jewish children for less benevolent reasons: money, conversion, as unpaid workers.)
This would certainly be enough for any documentary and is a vital contribution to the historical record as well as emotionally powerful. But Slesin and Perl turn “Secret Lives” into a far more complex piece of art, and in the film’s second half they begin to explore the deeper, more emotionally confusing, issues that are present.
It is easy, 60 years after the fact, to view the saving of Jewish children during the Holocaust as a unique and wondrous historical moment — who doesn’t like to see courage and munificence valorized? — but the interwoven lives of Slesin’s adult children and their birth and adoptive families are often darker and filled with half-articulated — or, more shockingly, fully articulated — regrets and doubts. Many of these hidden children felt abandoned by their families of origin; they were, after all, far too young to grasp the full implications of what was happening. But there are moments of emotional truth in the second half of “Secret Lives” that will shock many viewers.
In one scene, Alice Sondike, who had stayed with several rescue families and was raised devoutly Christian, speaks with enormous sorrow about how she rejected her birth mother — who had survived both Auschwitz and Dachau — when she appeared at the war’s end, yelling, “Don’t touch me with your Jewish hands,” and how she refused to believe that her parents, and she, were Jewish. Ed Van Thign, who later served as mayor of Amsterdam, from 1983 to 1994, speaks about how Anne Frank has become such an important figure in Amsterdam’s history, but how he and other children who had survived by being taken in by non-Jewish families received less attention. “She died,” he carefully explains, “and we had to remain silent because we were the lucky ones.”
Hetty Vos-Crews, the daughter of a couple who took in Moana Hilfman, a very young Jewish girl, claims, “I have been angry all of my adult life” because of the enormous, possibly deadly, risk her parents took. Members of the Rosciszewska family speak through tears about how they fought to maintain their intensely close relationship with Paul Wagner, who had lived with them for years as a son and brother. After the war, Wagner’s father moved him to Palestine and made contact with his Polish rescuers almost impossible. “Of course his father had the right to take him back. It was his son,” says Janina Rosciszewska, one of the Rosciszewska children. “But it seemed to us that he didn’t have the right to take him and just cut him off like that and not even allow Paul to remember us.” The pain here is palpable, and Slesin makes few attempts to disguise or deflect it. There are no easy answers for any of these women and men, and it would be a disservice to both them and us to pretend that there are.
Slesin, who has received an Oscar for her wonderful documentary “The Ten-Year Lunch: The Wit and Legend of the Algonquin Round Table,” manages this emotionally material with exceptional skill and art. She is unafraid of letting her interviewees express the intricacy of their own lives and experiences, and she trusts herself enough as a filmmaker — and us as an audience — to see, and maybe even begin to understand, the tremendous complexity here. In the end, “Secret Lives” does not simply document a significant aspect of contemporary Jewish history that has been unacknowledged, but raises essential, and unanswerable, questions about the meaning of family, love, resistance, struggle, commitment and survival.
Michael Bronski writes about culture, sex and politics for The Boston Globe, The Los Angeles Times and The Village Voice. His latest book is “Pulp Friction: Uncovering the Golden Age of Gay Male Pulps” (St. Martin’s, 2003.)