Out of hiding
Aviva Slesin's new Holocaust documentary "Secret Lives" raises questions about how childhood memories inform adult lives.
By LESLIE (HOBAN) BLAKE
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
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.
|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 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
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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