By Fotini Patinari
“Childhood was their Garden of Eden. Even though they spent it in hiding, even though they lost it in the shadow of the Holocaust.”
The film Kisses to the children (original title Filia eis ta pedia/ Φιλιά εις τα παιδιά) by Vassilis Loules narrates the stories of five Jewish children who survived hidden by Christian families during the German Occupation in Greece. Is it another film about the Holocaust? No, it is a film about childhood in the shadow of the Holocaust, as the director stresses, and about how it affected the lives of children; it is about giving voice to children who lived in absolute silence, it is a film about revealing and about memory.
The director, Vassilis Loules, studied Electrical Engineering (National Technical University of Athens) and Cinema. His documentary “Kisses to the Children”(2012) won awards at many festivals, was in theatrical release in Athens and Thessaloniki, was screened at events all over Greece, received many rave reviews and was in special screening in Europe, USA, Canada and Australia. The film is available in Greek with English subtitles.
The film follows the life narrations of five Greek-Jewish children who survived hidden during the German Occupation in Greece. Stories of terror and death are intertwined with stories of a carefree childhood, of love and security under the shadow of the Holocaust. Rosina, Sifis, Eftyhia, Shelly and Marios reveal their hidden stories and invaluable personal objects – a diary, photographs and home movies. In addition, the film outlines the presence of the Greek-Jewish communities before the Second World War and presents the situation in German occupied Greece.
“Kisses to the Children”was shot in Athens, in Thessaloniki, in Ioannina, in Chania (Greece) and in Auschwitz (Poland) and was released in 2012 after six years of research and personal work by the director. The timing is very important, since in recent years the neo-Nazi and extreme right wing tensions are rising in Greece and there is an increase of racist incidents and xenophobia. According to the director, when he started the research for the film in 2006, it was not in his intention to deal with these incidents, the the tensions were not obvious yet. But when the film was completed, in 2012, the stories of the Jewish children became dramatically relevant and they gained a political dimension. Furthermore, it is a fact that the Greek historiography was until now only to a very limited extent interested in the presence and the extermination of the Greek Jews, especially the Jews of Thessaloniki, where there used to be an extremely big and active community before WWII. Therefore the film fulfils for me two functions that make it so important: it raises awareness against the neo-Nazi tensions by making a connection with the past and it contributes to saving and bringing to surface a memory that was buried and tended to be forgotten.
The narrative flow
The protagonists narrate their stories to the director without his intervention and the simplicity of the oral language supports the immediacy and originality of the film. The interviews are combined with rare archive material (photos, short films made by German soldiers, illegal short films made by Greeks, diaries) and this combination leads to a clear image of the past and description of the subject. As a result the personal stories do not become overdramatic leading to populism, but they remain human, authentic, dignified, strong, direct and brave. The suffering described does not aim at easily moving the audience, but at touching their soul and making them think by revealing in front of their eyes the hidden sides of the children’s past. Τhe film does not shout and does not seek power by appealing to the emotions, it delivers its messages with sensitivity and respect by giving the facts, the events and the individual real stories. The simple, direct and unelaborated language contributes to this direction.
Five from the large Jewish community of Thessaloniki
Before the Second World War there were 77,377 Jews living in Greece (50,000 were living in my hometown Thessaloniki), but 67,149 were exterminated during the German Occupation. Among the victims there were also 13,000 children. Only few of them survived, some of them because they were hidden by Greek Christian families. Five of these children share their stories in the film of Vassilis Loules. The numbers outline how rare and valuable these stories are. The director spent 6 years of work to make the film, he managed to find and contact these people and most importantly he managed to make them trust him, in order to reveal their traumatic past and narrate it in front of the camera. I was impressed by their hidden and devastating narrations, but also by the way they expose them in front of the camera. Rosina, Sifis, Eftyhia, Shelly and Marios are now old and they have to dive into their memories, to reconnect with their childhood and to pull out traumatic experiences and painful emotions. It is an extremely difficult psychological process and the result is very strong: the narrators actually converse with their younger selves and through these specific stories they re-narrate and re-write the history, revealing aspects that were almost forgotten. Watching the film, I had the feeling that it was a liberation procedure, a confession as the director calls it, what the protagonists experienced and, though painful and dramatic, it helped them come to terms with what happened.
At the same time the film gives us invaluable insights into pages of the history that were yet unknown and into the psychological procedures these children had to go through. Rosina for example was born in Thessaloniki and was living in the center of the city with her parents – her father was a merchant – and her sisters, Rosina and Denise. Before the war, she used to play a lot with other children, boys and girls, Jewish and Christian, and as she states she had “a fine childhood, as far as games were concerned”. Her life was peaceful and calm till the German troops entered the city, on April 9th 1941. In February 1943 all Jews were ordered to move to the designated ghetto areas and on March 6th the ghetto was sealed. As the anti-Jewish measures deteriorated in 1943 and the first trains left to Auschwitz, the Pardo family decided to hide. Doctor Yorgos and Faedra Karakotsou took them in and hid them in their home where they stayed hidden for more than a year in one room in the heart of their old neighborhood. Rosina had also to change her name to Roula, in order to cover her Jewish identity. In this situation, isolated from the outside world, Rosina found refuge in the world of fantasy, in keeping a diary, in playing with her sisters and the doctor’s son and in watching the everyday life of the “outside world’, as she says, “hidden behind the window”. In her words “what stands out about that time was the total silence”. Another protagonist, Sifis, who was born in Crete to a wealthy family, narrates that he and his parents had to leave Crete illegally in order to survive and to settle in Athens where they stayed hidden in different places. In the end, the family had to split up and Sifis together with the lifelong servant of the family, Athina, was taken in by a friend of his father named Petrochilos, who hid them. During the time he spent hiding, Sifis became attached to Athina and after the war he had trouble recognizing and accepting his parents. As he states, these feelings “were traumatic and followed me all my life”.
Coping with traumatic experiences
What I also found very interesting is that the film deals with stories of people who witnessed the war and the Holocaust as children and this had a lifelong impact on them. What were their experiences and how did they cope with them? The hidden children of the film in most cases had to be separated from their families in order to survive and to stay hidden for months or even for years. How do children experience this transition and this change? As Rosina states “every day we remained hidden was a victory for life over death”. Whereas children are supposed to play and grow in a secure environment, these children lost their childhood in the shadow of the Holocaust. As Rosina says “I don’t remember playing at that time. I couldn’t play in the ghetto”. As the protagonists describe their lives before and during the German occupation, the spectator realizes what these children lost and what they went through in order to survive. Shelly and her family had to change houses 17 times in order to protect their identity. Eftyhia and Sifis had to split from their parents, Marios saw his father being arrested and was deprived of many things, like food and clothes, during the time he spent hiding with his mother. Rosina had to stay closed in in a room hiding for more 18 months. As it is stated in the film: “childhood was their garden of Eden”, but they lost it.
Besides the contribution of the film to the story of children and to the memory of the Holocaust, the film also expresses a message of solidarity, hope and togetherness. These children survived because of the shelter that other people, Christians and not Jews, strangers and not family, offered them regardless of the danger. It was a risk they took and led some of them even to death. These “strangers” offered children love and affection and they tried to give them a normal everyday life in order to make them feel safe. In most cases they were friends of the Jewish families or people with connections to those who smuggled people out of Greece or hid them. Rosina says that her mother used to call doctor Karakotsos ‘mallach’, which means angel, and Eftyhia stresses how safe she felt with her saviors ‘aunt’ and ‘uncle’ Aggelopoulos and how these people who actually saved them “never said a word” or bragged about it. And she added that “that’s what makes a person great”. As it is stated in the official synopsis, the film is also about stories of salvation and carefree childhood in the arms of strangers: secret Gardens of Eden, nests of love away from the horror of the Holocaust. I find this aspect of the film very important and I think it transfers a significant message, a message of humanity and life that goes beyond religion, nationality or any other aspect we use, in order to separate people in groups, in order to build boarders. And I am convinced that in today’s multicultural world this message is extremely useful and actual and is an example that we should all take into account.
After leaving the room where the film was screened I could not talk for a while. The voices of the children were ‘talking’ inside me and they were telling their stories again – as if they wanted to be heard and remembered. And they should be heard and remembered. This is why I find the contribution of Vassilis Loules and his film extremely important. It sheds light on the existence and the life of the Jewish community in Greece, it depicts the everyday and family life during the German Occupation and it connects micro-history with the official historical narrative. But even more importantly, it gives a voice to children and to their stories and it opens a window to their world and to how they experienced the war, the Holocaust and the exclusion. It is actually a restoration of the history and of the collective memory that was hidden or forgotten. This is an aspect that is overlooked in the Greek context and that is why the contribution of the film is so significant and rare. Last but not least the film has also a political dimension that in today’s context plays an important role: it delivers a message of solidarity between people, which is even more important, as the social cohesion deteriorates, and it has become extremely relevant due to the current sociopolitical developments, the rise of right wing and neo-Nazi forces in Greece and in Europe in general. For all these reasons I believe that everyone who wants to be informed about the ‘hidden’ sides of history, about personal stories and childrens’ stories that actually re-write history should watch this film. It constitutes excellent teaching material to be used in many educational settings.
The information about the film comes from the press release of the film, from interviews of the director, from personal discussions with the director and special material he sent to me. For all these things, for the help and cooperation, I am deeply grateful.