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    Secret Lives

    Out of hiding

    Aviva Slesin's new Holocaust documentary "Secret Lives" raises questions about how childhood memories inform adult lives.


    As the aging population of Holocaust survivors dwindles, more documentarians are joining Steven Spielberg in collecting and archiving their stories. Infinite in their variety, each personal story takes on a universal quality, so that 60 years later we can still be moved both to anger and tears. Recently we've seen not one, but two different Kindertransport documentaries, "My Knees Were Jumping" and "Into the Arms of Strangers," about the 10,000 German children sent to Britain for safekeeping. Now "Secret Lives," a new documentary from Academy Award winner Aviva Slesin ("The Ten Year Lunch: The Wit and Legend of the Algonquin Round Table," 1988) recounts the shared experiences of a handful of adult survivors, representing scores of Jewish children rescued by Christians throughout Europe.

    Full title: Secret Lives: Hidden Children & Their Rescuers During WW II.
    Directed by: Aviva Slesin.
    Written by: Toby Appleton Perl.
    Cinematography: Anthony Forma, Itamar Hadar.
    Music by: John Zorn.

    Related links: Official site
    The sparks of human kindness and random acts of courage displayed in Slesin's film have the power to move us beyond anger and sorrow. Everyone knows how Anne Frank and her family were hidden in Amsterdam, but there were rescued children in every country under Nazi domination. These children were hidden, sometimes in full view, as putative members of the Christian "rescuer" families. Others were literally locked inside suitcases or armoires, depending on their age and relative size. Slesin, born in Lithuania in 1943, was herself hidden in a suitcase not long after her birth and reunited three years later with her birth mother. But that's as much of her own story as the filmmaker reveals in this film. Instead, she lets her survivors — most now living in Israel or Europe, although one is a Long Island housewife — tell story after story from country after country.

    Secret Lives  
    The youngest of the surviving children are now in their 60s, and each rescue seems like a minor miracle. But the film also shows the toll that being hidden took in their subsequent lives. At the war's end, wherever possible, the children were returned from their temporary families to their surviving birth parents. In most cases, those parents were not only strangers to their children, but many children didn't want to leave their rescue families, nor did they want to immediately resume the religion that had almost cost them their lives. Wearing a yarmulke, one man explains that it took a long time for him to return to "being a Jew," after being raised a Christian during the war.

    That Long Island woman still lives with her aged birth mother, but she says, "I couldn't stand her touching me. I didn't believe she was my mother." And later she comments, "My life started after my childhood." One very tall Polish man currently living in Israel with a family of his own, was hidden in an armoire for three years. When he returns to visit his rescuer, he discovers she still has the armoire. After an awkward moment, he jokes about how much bigger it used to seem. Then he comments tearfully, "My mother gave me life, but she gave me life again." An angry adult member of a Dutch girl's rescue family still harbors residual sibling jealousy, talking about all the attention lavished on the Jewish girl raised as her "sister."

    Dedicating her film to her own rescuers, Matilda and Juozas Salenekas, the filmmaker also coins the phrase "trauma of gratitude," to describe the hidden children's lifelong sense of dislocation and distrust. The press notes state that Ms. Slesin herself never married and continues to live in the New York City apartment she shared with her birth mother (who recently died) for over 50 years.

    MAY 25, 2003

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