Aviva Slesin is an Academy Award-winning director (“The Ten Year Lunch”) whose most recent film, “Secret Lives: Hidden Children and their Rescuers During World War II,” addresses the complex issues surrounding the Jewish children of World War II who were saved by non-Jewish families in occupied Europe.
Slesin was a hidden child given to a rescue family by her mother when she was nine months old. She has been making films for more than thirty years, but this film is the first to address any aspect of her own life. In a recent Hatchet interview, Slesin spoke of the implications of being a rescued child on her work in film.
Hatchet: You’ve been making films all your life, you’re an Academy Award-winning director, and yet you’ve never done anything related to your life before. What made you want to do this film?
Aviva Slesin: Well, I was pretty ambivalent about making a film that had anything to do with my own background because as a filmmaker I’ve mostly made documentaries on cultural subjects and some comedy, and I’m not really a personal filmmaker, that has never been my desire. But I knew it was a good story, and after I visited my own rescuers in 1994 the emotions between us were so strong. Even though I had no memories of my time in hiding and even though we didn’t speak the same language, I knew that if I could find people who could remember what happened to them it would be a very, very good story. Also, it haunted me. I think each person has that one thing (that) happened to them that sort of made them the person that they are, that was the influence of their life, and I started to understand that (my experience as a hidden child) was mine and that probably was the same thing had happened to other hidden children. It became a very interesting odyssey, a search.
H: When you went back to Lithuania, you had to speak to your rescue mother through a translator. What was it like communicating with her?
AS: Well, I did speak words when I was a child, but I had no memory of those words or that language. So I don’t know what it was, but I know that when I saw her that the emotions between us were so powerful that we both wept, and it’s not – I don’t think it was – verbal. I knew that she was also my mother, she had been my mother and, in fact, I asked her what I had called her when I was a little girl, when I was a baby, and she said that I had called her “Mamita,” which is mother in Lithuanian.
H: You were only nine months old when you were taken, but most of the other children were much older when they were taken–
AS: Not everybody. Erica (of the film) was the little girl in Holland who Marion saved. She was born in hiding.
H: That’s right, she was born a hidden child–
AS: Yes, and she sort of had the same things as me, which was this just incredible bond with her rescue mother, Marion.
H: Did the kind of bond the rescue children had with their biological family versus their rescue family after the war depend on whether they were infants or an older children when they were hidden?
AS: Well, it’s very hard to make generalities. I really try not to because different people have such different experiences. They had different parents, they had different rescuers, they were different ages, they had different capacities for love, they had different views. So it’s very hard to speak, but I think … the differences between the older children and myself is that they actually had memories and so they could speak about those things that had happened to them, whereas it was very hard for children who were babies, who didn’t recollect, to have memories of experiences. They just were stuck, kind of, with these feelings of enormous love for their rescuers or difficulties with their biological parents who may have come back or not, but they were pre-verbal.
H: After the war your mother came back and took you from your rescue family. How did you all handle the situation?
AS: I was (considered) lucky because, a) I survived, and b) I was so young that maybe I didn’t remember everything that happened, and that was good. So why stir up all of those terrible things when I probably had no memory of them? So, it was spoken about, but in a very – how shall I put it? – in a way that it wasn’t … I was not invited to have deep conversations. (My mother) wasn’t indulgent of deep conversations and, also, everybody wanted to get on with their lives. So to go back to that time, such a terrible time, was hard. It brought up bad feelings and bad memories, so people try to avoid it. And … the going belief (about children) was that we were too young to remember anything, and that was good
H: And then later on, of course, it comes out that those years are critical.
AS: Yes, what happens to you the first two years of your life you remember better than anything else, thought not always in words, which is what Marion says in the film.
H: One theme the film touches upon is the complex emotions the hidden children experienced because, even though they were forced into a horrible situation, the world considers them lucky to have survived.
AS: Well, that’s of course the thing. In the picture, in the big scheme of things, we were very lucky, because look how many children died in this … what on earth are we complaining about if we’re complaining? Which is another reason to keep silent, which is what the ex-mayor of Amsterdam in the film says so eloquently. He says that Anne Frank died but we survived, so that was another reason to keep silent. Next to the people who died, we definitely were the lucky ones, but given that we survived, something also happened to us.
H: Do you think it was the right decision, after the war, to give a child back to the biological relatives if their immediate family had died, or should the child have stayed with the rescue family?
AS: That’s a very interesting question. I’ll answer it in a roundabout fashion. I made the film with Tobi Appleton (the co-producer and writer). She is a mother herself and she comes from a religious background. In other words, she went to Yeshiva, and she really was a Jewish scholar and somewhat religious. I have no children and I am not religious. So we are on other sides of this issue, for the most part, personally. I always felt without a doubt that children should be left with people who love them; this is paramount … even if it means giving up the religion. But you have to understand, I’m not religious, so to me it’s not a value that I would give up a child for. And on the other hand, if you were raised religious and that is important to you and that defines your life and defines your belief system and defines your spirituality, then it becomes a different story. Then, of course, you want to have a child who was born into what you think is important as a faith. You want that child returned to that faith and even at the cost of giving up, maybe, you know, parents who love you but are of a different faith. So for me, personally, I believe that the children should have been allowed to stay with people who loved them. But I’m aware that I tell you that from a background that is lacking in religion as an important, you know, element of my life.
H: You’ve mentioned before that one thing that did unite hidden children was their incredible adaptability.
AS: Well, I think the adaptability – although, again, I reiterate that I hesitate to sort of generalize – but I think adaptability was a necessary event. I think that was a trait that was probably nurtured in hiding – that you had to adapt and you had to take on whatever was going on around you because you would pull everybody into danger if you didn’t. I think children sensed that. I don’t know that we knew that, but I think that we sensed that because every hidden child, each in their own way, adapted to their surroundings.
H: Has that adaptability been a blessing or a burden or a combination of both for you personally?
AS: It’s been both because what happens is, you sort of show up for life and you sort of adapt and, you know, you do what’s required and you try not to, but that doesn’t mean that the rest of you has sort of caught up to that. So, often you sort of look like you’re fine and you’re sort of thinking, what am I doing here?
H: What do you want someone to think about or understand differently after viewing “Secret Lives”?
AS: I would like them to understand that virtue is as inexplicable as evil and that it is both, it is just as surprising wherever you find it and that, that it exists everywhere. It’s small in the face of the bigger evil, but it exists on its importance, and it’s important to know about both as an example and as a historical fact. And I also would like them to know that the children have only so many bonding in them and that all wars, now (and) then, create orphans and at best create children who will be damaged for the rest of their lives.