The story of Anne Frank, often dramatized on stage and screen, made the world aware of one aspect of the Holocaust experience–the sheltering of whole Jewish families in hidden locations by quietly heroic members of the gentile population. This documentary by Aviva Slesin–modest in both approach and running-time (a mere 72 minutes)–concerns another, the harboring of Jewish children during the war by Christians who often passed them off as their own; some were youngsters whose parents, often in imminent danger of deportation or death, turned them over to friends or acquaintances, while others were orphans. Slesin herself was saved by a couple who hid her for more than two years after she was smuggled out of a Lithuanian ghetto, but “Secret Lives” is not concerned with her own story; instead she focuses on others who were saved in a similar fashion, recording their experiences, most notably their relationships with their rescuers and parents. The stories vary; one, for example, concerns a Dutch boy who was repeatedly shifted from place to place, another a French girl rescued from a bombed-out building by a family who protected her for the duration of the war, a third a Polish boy literally kept in a piece of furniture by his host family to prevent his discovery–among many others. The film uses stills and found footage to lay out each biographical sketch, and employs interviews with the now-grown children, as well as their biological and “adoptive” mothers and fathers; in some cases it also includes footage of reunions of the rescued with their saviors, often after many years apart. And it doesn’t skirt the issue of the psychological damage that the experience inevitably left.
One can hardly fail to be moved by this uplifting account of human decency in the face of ultimate evil. Technically “Secret Lives” is quite ordinary, but the people to whom it introduces us are far from that. They’re a reminder that even in the worst of circumstances, uncommon courage can appear in the most unlikely places–that in difficult times simple human kindness can become the most precious and remarkable of qualities. But one shouldn’t speak of the film merely in terms of such generalities. Its power and poignancy derive not only from the overall theme but from the specifics of the cases–the inability of a young girl to accept a mother, just returned from a concentration camp, whom she hadn’t seen in years, or to deal with her own Jewishness after being raised as a Christian; or the different attitudes of two Dutch siblings, one of whom looks back on her years with a younger “sister” with unalloyed joy while the other continues to resent the attention her parents showered upon their “guest;” or the painful removal of children from the care of their hosts by Jewish agencies if–as so often happened–their parents hadn’t survived the war. Like most good non-fiction films, this one succeeds not by pontificating but by gently presenting an accumulation of devastating detail.
“Secret Lives” is yet another testimony to the fact that documentaries are finally coming into their own as theatrical releases. They used to be almost exclusively festival items, available to only a few lucky viewers unless picked up for broadcast. Now they’re becoming more accessible in theatres, and general audiences are beginning to discover how much more they often have to offer than Hollywood’s usual fictional output. In its simple, unaffected way, his unassuming little film is very powerful indeed.