Monday, July 28, 2008

Leave No Child Behind

While the Bush administration likes to boast about the No Child Left Behind program created by its incompetent Department of Education, a darker, more predatory context sometimes lurks behind those words. Whether one looks to the cautionary tale of Hansel and Gretel or Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist, there is no shortage of stories about children being manipulated, brutalized, and sometimes killed by pederasts and serial killers.

Even if children are taught from an early age not to take candy from strangers -- or get into an unknown driver's car -- sometimes temptation rears its ugly head. Posters on San Francisco MUNI buses remind riders that, all too often, a child's sexual abuser can be a relative, stepfather, or family friend. Something as innocent as a naive desire to please a trusted friend or authority figure can easily shatter a child's life.

Of course, evil comes in all shapes and sizes. Despite an adult's claim that children will be protected from harm, reality sometimes gets in the way. If you don't believe me, just ask any adult who, as an adolescent, was sexually molested by the Catholic priest he expected to be the spiritual guide who would protect him from evil.

Two documentaries screened at this year's San Francisco Jewish Film Festival deal with the evacuation of large groups of children. In one case, the aim is to deliver children from evil. In the other, large numbers of children are dumped right into the hands of an evil they can hardly imagine.

Talk about dumb luck. After reading The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich , a young, newlywed Jew living in Switzerland felt compelled to do something to help. After approaching several Jewish agencies and telling them that they didn't even have to pay him for his services, he was about to give up when he knocked on the door of a children's support organization. Unbeknownst to the naive 27-year-old British-born Jew, the organization was a front for the Israeli Mossad.

Yehuda Kaveh's documentary, Operation Mural Casablanca 1961, relates how 530 children of Moroccan Jews were smuggled from Casablanca to Switzerland (under the guise of attending a summer camp for needy children) before being resettled in Israel. The success of Operation Mural led to the subsequent emigration of nearly 100,000 Moroccan Jews between 1962 and 1964.

The film follows David Littman and some of his colleagues as they return to Casablanca 45 years following their daring rescue operation. Retracing their steps as they describe the meticulous planning and execution of 1961's top-secret evacuation of Jewish children, they look back on an adventure that made one of Littman's children wonder if her father wasn't a real-life James Bond. Interesting insights include Littman's unexpected success using "group passports" to help large numbers of children leave Casablanca and a description of how the entire operation was almost compromised by the misguided efforts of orthodox Jews in Switzerland -- who were determined to enroll the children in a yeshiva instead of letting them proceed to Israel as originally planned.

Not every story has a happy ending. While many of the Moroccan children who were evacuated by Operation Mural were subsequently reunited with their parents in Israel, the children of Italian Jews who were taken from the Rome ghetto in December 1943 were much less fortunate. Mimmo Calopresti's heart-rending documentary Volevo Solo Vivere (I Only Wanted To Live) (which has Steven Spielberg as its executive director), features interviews with nine elderly Italians who survived Auschwitz.

At the time of their evacuation from Rome these boys and girls ranged from approximately 4 to 20 years in age. They tell of how they survived a series of "selections" in which children were asked if they wanted to go see their mother and, if they said yes, ended up being loaded onto trucks to be killed. Their tales of being put to work in the crematoria at Auschwitz (and having to escort relatives to their death) are truly heartbreaking.

And yet, occasionally a child's unintentional wisdom pokes through. One woman describes how she avoided hanging around kids her own age -- who very competitively fought for any scrap of food. Instead, she stuck with older Jews who were too weak to eat or who quietly sacrificed their food rations for the sake of the young.

Calopresti's film includes plenty of archival footage taken from the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History. No matter how many times one has seen this footage, it never loses its power to shock the viewer. Perhaps the most moving passage in the film comes from Milan's Liliana Segre. Watch the trailer which contains her riveting testimony. And then try to comprehend what her childhood was like!

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