Film shows child survivors choosing life
For all the heartache that comes with examining the Shoa, the plight of the children can be the most difficult to explore. And that goes for the youngsters who survived, too.
In Nina’s Home, however, we’re faced with two different types of young survivors all at once secular Jews who were hidden away in the French countryside and youngsters from Eastern Europe who were brutalized in concentration camps. As the war winds down, they find themselves living together in a chateau outside of Paris.
Based on stories of the real “Homes of Hope” government-sponsored orphanages, this moving film manages to confront a host of issues simultaneously: the challenges of healing lost and damaged souls, the secular-versus-religious divide between Jews, and the complexities of integrating survivors back into society.
Anchoring the chaos is Nina, played with aplomb by Agnes Jaoui, who is wise and empathetic beyond her years. She cajoles food from official sources, dries tears, offers gentle advice, and provides firm admonishment to her charges, the hidden children. Yet she also knows her maternal affection is no substitute for parents who won’t return, a fact the children don’t know or later, after the horrors become known simply won’t accept.
Even so, there is something manageable about this existence that is, until the camp survivors are trucked in. These young boys fight for food and rooms. They don’t trust. They don’t listen. They also insist on keeping kosher and maintaining the ancestral traditions for which their families were exterminated. The other, secular kids are confounded.
Directed by Richard Dembo, who passed away during the final editing stages, the film succeeds wonderfully in dramatizing the situation by introducing us to a number of the children. Through their eyes, we experience their hope and innocence, their burning losses and anger, their fear and incomprehension, and their willingness to start over.
Adjusting to a world once defined by madness is no easy task, but most persevere. A few of the older ones seek solace in love. One dreams of becoming an actress. Another pledges her allegiance to communism. The boys from Eastern Europe adhere to prayer and even manage to draw in some of the secular kids, albeit not on a regular basis. One of the secular teenagers teach some of the religious ones to swim.
Before our eyes, they choose life. They don’t give in. And they won’t forget. They implicitly understand that they must continue each in his or her own way.
Despite the creeping sense of optimism that builds toward the end, this is a challenging film to watch. Nina’s Home is, by turns, sad, puzzling, poignant, and disturbing. This is very much a study of the human condition which is the film’s strength, because we’re allowed to better understand just a little what it must have been like not only to survive, but to live in a home with some hope.
The New Jersey Jewish Film Festival will screen Nina’s Home Sunday, March 18, at 7 p.m. at Clearview Cinema 10 Theater in Succasunna. A post-screening discussion will be held with Barbara Wind, director of the Holocaust Council of MetroWest.
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