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How stories of the hidden Jews in World War Two restore our faith in humanity

Before the clock struck midnight, my new year’s resolution was broken. I had banned myself from watching any more World War Two films or series or talks. I’m all Nazied out, to be honest. However, I was doomed even before the roaring 2020s began.

RELEASE DATE: October 18, 2019 TITLE: Jojo Rabbit STUDIO: Twentieth Century Fox DIRECTOR: Taika Waititi PLOT: A young boy in Hitler’s army finds out his mother is hiding a Jewish girl in their home. STARRING: TAIKA WAITITI as Adolf Hitler, ROMAN GRIFFIN DAVIS as Jojo Betzler (Credit Image: � Twentieth Century Fox/Entertainment Pictures/

On the post-Christmas flight back from Toronto, I discovered The Invisibles, a film about the 7,000 Jews who hid in Berlin during the war. With the help of anti-Nazi Germans, about 1,700 survived. They hid in plain sight. It’s an extraordinary docu-drama by the German director and producer Claus Räfle, based on the riveting accounts of four survivors. 

One of them transformed herself from the brown-haired and “Semitic” Hanni Weissenberg — now Hanni Lévy and still living in Paris, aged 95 — into the blonde “Aryan” Hannelore Winkler. Of living for those years under the threat of being found out, Ms Weissenberg said: “You just had to ignore the fear in your gut and push it away — become someone else.” It’s an extraordinary story of hope and bravery, of those who risked their lives to hide friends and of hidden resistance to the Nazi regime by both Jewish and non-Jewish Germans.

Just about my favourite film of the year, Jojo Rabbit, deals with the Second World War as well, and has the idea of something hidden, in common with The Invisibles. Jojo is a 10-year old member of the Hitlerjugend, played by the astonishing Roman Griffin Davis. One day Jojo finds a young Jewish girl hidden in a cupboard upstairs in the attic. As in “The Invisibles”, Jojo’s mother, played by Scarlett Johansson, has hidden the young woman. In this brilliant, hilariously funny — and poignant — satire about an act of resistance, Jojo’s best friend is an imaginary Adolf Hitler. This poses problems as he gets to know the hidden girl.

Hidden is also the theme of Barry Cohen’s book  Opening the Drawer: The Hidden Identity of Polish Jews, published in 2018. It tells the story of three generations of Poles who discover their Jewish roots. Cohen is a London-based writer and journalist who has been foreign editor of the New Statesman.

Cohen travelled to his mother’s town in Poland, the north-eastern village of Narewka, near the Belarusian border, in the early 2000s and expected to find no Jewish life left. After the Holocaust and the anti-Semitism of the Communists, that belief was ingrained. “In the west, everyone felt Poland was just a great big graveyard,” says Cohen. “You come with these very negative attitudes.” Cohen assumed that Poland’s Jewish heritage was lost. Still, he discovers not only these hidden histories, but also another unexpected phenomenon. Many Poles are curious about this part of their cultural heritage.

Cohen has interviewed three generations, from child survivors of the Holocaust, to Poles who grew up in the Communist era, and young Poles who are the product of democracy. Those different regimes shaped all. There is a Catholic priest, academics, students, writers and an anti-Semitic football hooligan who discovered his hidden heritage, a heritage that goes back 1,000 years. “I felt like a lonesome Jewish cowboy riding into Poland looking for the usual suspects,” writes Cohen. “Many were anti-Semitic or grew up in anti-Semitic households.”

The Catholic priest, Father Romuald Jakub Weksler-Waszkinel, said that he “didn’t want to be a Jew. At the time, Christian upbringing was fiercely anti-Jewish… I wanted to be like my friends”. And it wasn’t until he was studying at the seminary that he discovered that “the Jews didn’t kill Jesus”. It was a “huge discovery” for him “to learn that [Jesus’s] mother and all his apostles were Jewish”.

My week ended with the press screening of the black and white film of Polish writer Jerzy Kosinski’s novel The Painted Bird. It, too, is about wartime Poland and an orphaned Jewish 10-year old boy. Polish peasantry hardly comes out well in this unremittingly grim depiction of poverty, ignorance, cruelty, degradation, superstition, and violence. It had me wanting to hide in the cupboard and never come out. 

Hidden histories are still resonant. The star of The Invisibles, Hanni Lévy (née Weissenberg) says she has no bitterness: “Only gratitude for the extraordinary people who helped me stay alive.” Such nobility of spirit is almost beyond our comprehension.