Get local news delivered straight to your phone

Support City Paper!

$
$
$

Your contribution is appreciated.

In those territories controlled or conquered by the Germans during World War II, it’s estimated that fewer than one in 10 Jewish children survived. The desperate efforts to transport or hide such children have already been chronicled by several documentaries, and at first Aviva Slesin’s Secret Lives: Hidden Children and Their Rescuers During WWII seems merely to add a few more case studies. That’s not to say that Slesin—who herself was hidden in Lithuania as a baby—didn’t uncover some fascinating stories. Some of the rescuers simply attempted to blend Jewish children into their families, passing them off as their own or as nieces and nephews. But there was also an 18-year-old woman in Nice, whose only experience with kids was as a baby sitter, who took responsibility for two Belgian refugees, the oldest one only eight years younger than she. (“I think they saved my life, too,” she says.) Slesin has collected moving accounts of good deeds under evil circumstances, as well as harrowing ones of moments when hidden kids could have been exposed. (She intentionally did not pursue cases of rescuers who abused or exploited the children they sheltered.) But about halfway through the 72-minute film, the war ends—and things get really interesting, with both Jewish survivors and their adoptive families revealing the emotions aroused by the brief but formative periods they lived together. Those hidden children who were fortunate enough to be reclaimed by one or both parents after the war, it turns out, often didn’t want to leave their rescuers: The years spent in hiding “were possibly the best years of my childhood,” says one man, and a now-elderly woman remembers returning to get her 5-year-old daughter, who told her, “don’t touch me with your Jewish hands.” Some of the surrogate family members are also conflicted about the period, including one Dutch woman who still feels sibling rivalry toward the Jewish girl who stayed with her family. Such intimate revelations are characteristic of the reminiscences Slesin summoned. With no intention of conducting a thorough survey of her subject, Slesin leaves statistics behind to explore feelings that are messily, profoundly human. —Mark Jenkins