Secret Lives, subtitled Hidden Children & their Rescuers During WW II, is part of that ever-growing genre of Holocaust stories, those often-forgotten incidents of courage and horror that echoed out from the central catastrophic event. As with many of these films, one is asked to consider both the extent of human empathy and indifference, the point being that oppressive times give rise to simple acts of bravery, acts that are few and far between.
The thrust of this film is inescapably uplifting, based on stories of Jewish children whose lives were spared when Dutch Christians risked death on clandestine adoptions. One can only marvel and wonder what one would do under similar circumstances.
Apart from making us feel good that goodness actually exists, the film shows that the children’s ordeal wasn’t rosy, despite their youth and innocence. Though they were among a fortunate few, the disruption they suffered sometimes led to long-lasting pain and severe identity crisis.
Some of the children were so young when their secret lives began that they had no memory of their real parents. Sometimes the internalization of their ad hoc Christian identities was extreme, as in the case of one young girl who, when finally reunited with her mother after the war, couldn’t stand to be touched by her “Jewish hands.”
And since there was constant danger from the Nazis as these children suddenly appeared in the homes of blond and blue-eyed families, it was important that they assimilate as fully as possible.
The most poignant parts of the film show the children reunited with their rescuers. Some of the reunions take place a half-century later, a loving bond still intact. It seems significant that none of the rescuers considers what they did heroic and that their demurral arises not from a sense of modesty but the genuine feeling that they had no choice but to act as they did. Their sense of necessity to save these children was stronger than their fear of being found out and possibly executed.
Was it fearlessness or foolishness or some serendipitous combination of both? It’s one of those questions you hope you never have to find the answer to.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Monday, Oct. 20. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].