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Their refuge came at a price

Jewish children hidden during WWII were separated from rescuers after the war; a new documentary recounts bittersweet journeys.

June 20, 2003|Kevin Thomas | Times Staff Writer

Aviva Slesin's sensitive and comprehensive "Secret Lives: Hidden Children & Their Rescuers During World War II" focuses on those individuals in countries occupied by Germany who had the courage to risk their lives to protect Jewish children. Just how many rescuers there were or how many lives they saved will never be known; what is known is that there were more than 1.5 million Jewish children living in Europe before World War II but by war's end fewer than one in 10 had survived.

The now-elderly rescuers don't see themselves as heroes but as people who saw it as their duty to help a child. It is believed that they constituted a tiny minority in all the occupied countries; those parents in turn who appealed to them for help were themselves part of a minority of Jews who rightly sensed that their lives were in such great danger that they were at last willing to separate themselves from their children in the hope that their offspring might survive even if they did not.

Slesin, herself a "hidden child," acknowledges that some children were taken in for profit, some for the purpose of converting them to Christianity and that some were mistreated, but the rescuers she acquaints us with were motivated by a love of humanity. They treated the Jewish children as their own and raised them as part of their families. Today, many of the rescued children speak of the love they received from -- and gave to -- their adoptive families.

The heart of "Secret Lives" lies with war's end. Having been successfully protected at great risk during the war the children now faced separation from what was, in many instances, the only family they really knew to be reunited with a surviving parent or parents who seemed like strangers. Those whose parents and other relatives died in the Holocaust by and large did not have the right to stay with their adoptive parents, so strong was the survivor sentiment that children retain their Jewish identity and be adopted into Jewish families. As one woman remarks, upon being torn from her rescuers, "The war for me began when the war was over."

Erika Polak, an elegant Amsterdam resident, was only 2 when she was taken from her adoptive mother, Marian Pritchard, and returned to her birth mother. She tells us she never got along with her birth mother and felt rejected by Pritchard, who never thought a 2-year-old could possibly remember her. When Polak became a mother herself she so strongly felt the urge to reunite with Pritchard that she tracked her down in America.

"Secret Lives" is a film of reunion and reconciliation, of the possibility that people of different generations can reconnect after many years and that the bond of love endures. The rescued children can round out their complicated sense of identity and the rescuers renew a sense of appreciation for the lives they saved and nurtured. Artfully, even elegantly constructed, "Secret Lives" skillfully probes issues of conflicting emotions and allegiances in a dark time, yet emerges as a loving affirmation of humanity's remarkable potential for goodness in the face of pervasive evil.

*

'Secret Lives'

MPAA rating: Unrated

Times guidelines: Complex mature themes

A Cinema Guild release. Producer-director Aviva Slesin. Executive producer Ann Rubenstein Tisch. Writer/co-producer Toby Appleton Perl. Editor Ken Eluto. Music John Zorn. Running time: 1 hour, 12 minutes.

Exclusively at the Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869.

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