Of the 1.5 million Jewish children living in Europe at the start of WWII, fewer than one in 10 was still alive at its close, and many of those who lived survived because they were hidden away in Christian households. Oscar-winning documentarian Aviva Slesin (“The Ten-Year Lunch: The Wit and Legend of the Algonquin Round Table”) was one of those children and in “Secret Lives” she sets out to discover other changelings and their rescuers. Their interwoven stories, backgrounded by concise narration, well-chosen archival imagery and an evocative score by John Zorn, make for an absorbing and revealing examination of the ties that bind. Limited theatrical run seems distinctly possible, video play on cable or PBS a given.
Slesin constructs a multi-voiced chronicle of several 60-plus “kids” and their similarly aged de facto families, who speak of their fearsome but generally positive experiences. Though people took Jewish children in for many reasons, among them conversion, money or abuse, heroic uplifting docu focuses on those brave souls who stepped in to help simply because they felt they had to.
In general the “children” interviewed tell of adapting to their new surroundings with remarkable ease and in turn being accepted into the fold with equanimity and even joy, the exception tending to prove the rule. Slesin films a Dutch rescuer’s graying blond and blue-eyed daughters who offer opposing memories of their shared childhood: One, fussing over a fluffy lapdog, admits she’s been angry all her life, unable to understand how her mother could have risked the lives of her own children to save an ugly duckling stranger, while her younger sister remembers doting on the dark intruder whom she liked to pretend was her twin.
The price for comfortable assimilation was often an attendant loss of cultural identity. While one little boy’s first reaction to the end of the war was to grab a Dutch flag and run around the streets yelling “I’m a Jew!”, one woman admits that as a little girl she believed she was spared while her parents and sisters were killed because God wanted her to be a Catholic.
But the greatest alienation came after the war, in reunions with birth mothers or fathers. One woman recounts her repulsion at the sight of her bald, skeletal mother, second only to her horror at learning she herself was a hated Jew.
In contrast, reunions with rescuers, arranged by the filmmakers or captured in shaky home movies, turn into tearful love fests of instant rebonding. A calm white-haired matron and her beaming, bearded and yarmulke-wearing protege practically bill and coo at each other as they recreate the idyllic days of concealment. No matter how terrible the circumstances (one little boy spent a large part of the war on a little chair inside a wooden armoire), the hidden children speak of their adoptive families with unstinting love and gratitude.
Editing of talking heads, archival material, personal photographs, and home movie footage is exemplary, and music does much to unify and harmonize the disparate-tongued voices of Slesin’s docu homage.