(director/writer: Aviva Slesin; screenwriter: Toby Appleton Perl; cinematographers: Anthony Forma/ Itamar Hadar; editor: Ken Eluto; music: John Zorn; cast: Fred Gat, Alice Soldike, Harold Gottschall, Paul Wagner; Runtime: 72; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Tony Appleton Perl/Aviva Slesin; The Cinema Guild, Inc.; 2002)

“A ringing testament to courage and human decency in the face of evil.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A ringing testament to courage and human decency in the face of evil. Secret Lives is an emotionally stirring documentary about a number of Jewish children who were rescued from the Nazis by non-Jews who, at great danger to themselves, took them into their homes. Some children were hidden for months or years, and this experience affected the hidden children, their rescuers, and the children’s parents returning after the war. Incidentally, the number of such returning parents from concentration camps was small. Before WW11, more than a million and half Jewish children were living in Europe. By the end of the war fewer than one out of ten had survived. Director and producer Aviva Slesin, herself such a hidden child from Lithuania, tells the story in a very moving and personal way. Ms. Slesin won the Academy Award for best feature documentary in 1987 for “The Ten-Year Lunch: The wit and Legend of the Algonquin Round Table.”

The hidden children, now in their fifties and sixties, return to Holland, Belgium, Poland, and France. Through interviews we meet some of the people who risked their lives to hide these children and learn how this experience has continued to affect the survivors. The reunion between child and family after losing contact for many years was touching. There is no profile of the typical rescuer. They could be rich or poor, religious or not. Some did it because it was the decent thing to do, others for the money or to convert the children. Most rescuers were not paid, still they did their best to hide and protect the hunted children. If caught, they and their families would be executed. There was always the danger from unsympathetic neighbors turning them in or from German soldiers searching their homes.

In one memorable story, the youngster Fred Gat stayed in a small closet in an apartment building in Poland for the war’s duration. After the war he was placed in an orphanage and migrated to Israel. The Jewish agencies did not welcome the children being adopted by their Christian rescuers, as they were concerned by how many Jewish lives were lost and didn’t want to lose any more of their people. Separation after the war, became a hard reality for both the children and their rescuers to face.

All the stories were heartbreaking. Every child had a different experience, but all were appreciative of what their rescuers did for them. As Paul Wagner, one of the rescued children says: “There’s no payment for saving a life.” This documentary puts a human face on the rescuers and pays tribute to them for the courage and humanity they showed in such a time of evil. The rescuers transcended their fears, politics, and religious beliefs to save the children’s lives rather than to stand by and not react.

This short documentary is a warm personal history lesson and a reminder that there are good people even in the midst of a Holocaust. I could see this more as a PBS showing than as a feature movie but, in any case, it’s an absorbing work that deserves to be seen by a wide audience.