The inspiring story of Lena Kuchler-Silberman, who single-handedly “rescued” myriad Jewish orphans at the end of WWII in Poland, has already been told in several books (including her own), a TV-movie dramatization (starring, oddly, Linda Lavin) and other treatments. Docu “My 100 Children” may prove the definitive version, however, as it features not only extensive original footage of her good works but also interviews with the surviving, now retirement-aged “kids” she plucked from various desperate straits. Well-crafted item should have a long tube and educational life.
Kuchler was an industrious young woman who lasted out the war by pretending to be Aryan. Having lost her only daughter, she “saw my child in every face” of the Jewish children who’d landed in various Polish government and welfare agencies after conflict’s end. Their circumstances were dire, their pasts worse –many had survived concentration camps or had been hidden for years, ending up in Krakow, Poland, from all over Europe.
Their benefactress moved them to a building in nearby Zakopane, where they were well fed, housed and educated for the first time in their memories. Trained as a psychologist, Kuchler’s progressive methods included enforcing discipline via a children’s self-government.
Given their traumatic recent experiences, many of the toddler-to-teenaged children were withdrawn, fearful, or filled with rage. They still have vivid memories of one particularly harrowing bully (who remains disturbingly nonchalant about his adolescent reign of terror), but only fond ones of Lena.
Lingering anti-Semitism and funding difficulties forced Kuchler to abruptly evacuate the orphanage’s entire population to Israel, a dangerous, semi-illegal journey that ended up taking several years. After staying on in a kibbutz for some months, she reluctantly returned to Europe, marrying and raising another daughter (who joined the 2001 reunion of the “100 children,” captured here).
Kuchler-Silberman died in 1987 at age 77; she’s glimpsed in a TV interview shot three years earlier.
Briskly assembled docu has no shortage of poignant and dramatic moments, such as one blond-haired, blue-eyed survivor’s admission that he’ll never know whether he’s actually Jewish (all trace of his origins disappeared in WWII), but it’s the only identity he’s ever known.
There’s also a woman finally reunited in 2000 with the one-time seminary student who’d saved her from Nazi capture — Pope John Paul II.
Archival and latter-day footage prove equally absorbing in well-turned package.