Moving Tales of Saving Kids

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Cinemax's Secret Lives: Hidden Children and Their Rescuers During WWII
recounts that war from a perspective not usually explored: through the eyes of children who were hidden from the Nazis.

Director and narrator Aviva Slesin collects the stories of Jewish children who, in an effort to protect them from the Nazi regime, were separated from their families and sent to live with non-Jewish families. Sometimes their rescuers — as those who harbored children are called in the documentary — were friends, neighbors or just people whose desire to protect the innocent spurred them to "extraordinary acts of human decency."

Slesin, who spent the first three years of her life as a hidden child, was drawn to the project after she reunited with her own rescuer 50 years after the war. The reunions in the documentary were organized by Israel's Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem.

The stories told here are punctuated and supported by photographs and footage from the war years.

Slesin chooses to focus primarily on the happier stories where the children and their rescuers enjoyed their time together and bonded almost as a natural family. Viewers are told that some children ended up in the hands of profiteers and abusers during the war, but Slesin does not interview anyone who underwent that experience.

Most of those profiled have happy memories of their time spent together. The children, separated at a young age, came to look on their rescuers as second parents, or even regard them as their real parents.

But the war years were fraught with danger and fear — rescuers and their families faced execution if the children were found, and had to be wary of neighbors and acquaintances who could reveal their secrets at any time.

The daughter of one rescuer tells how she was angry at her mother for putting their family's lives at risk by harboring a Jewish girl.

Though she resented the stress and danger that came with their efforts, she came to see the girl as her sister. But the family was not allowed to adopt the girl after WWII ended. Her parents had been killed during the war and she was bounced from residence to residence, eventually ending up in an abusive home.

For many of the children, the sad times started after the war. Some lost their real parents and those who weren't adopted by their rescuers were passed on to other families.

Some underwent identity crises as they entered their teens. Others were separated from their rescuers for decades before they were reunited.

Many of the hidden children had trouble renewing their relationships with their own parents. To the children, being left behind by their parents was abandonment, "and that feeling never goes away," Dr. Robert Krell, a "hidden child," recounted.

But it was just as rough for the parents who did not know if they would ever see their children again. Their children's safety was foremost in their minds. As one mother told her child's rescuer: "Do whatever you want with her, keep her alive."

Slesin does a good job shedding light on a practice that saved many children during the war and a story that is seldom told. It is refreshing to see a story about WWII that eschews the explosions and violence and concentrates on the struggle to survive far from the front lines and demonstrates, as Slesin said, "in the midst of evil, humanity at its very best."

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