Friday, October 21, 2005
Secret Courage: A Carlisle Film Premiere
An enigmatic man named Walter Suskind was merely a footnote in other people's stories of the Dutch Holocaust. But now he is the subject of a compelling feature-length documentary produced by former Carlisleans, Tim and Karen Morse. The film, Secret Courage: The Walter Suskind Story, had its first public showing at Union Hall on Sunday, October 16. Organized by the Social Action Committee of the First Religious Society, the film played to a capacity audience that was clearly moved by this powerful story.
Suskind was a German Jew living in Amsterdam and working as a salesman for the Unilever Corporation. After the Nazis occupied Holland, they began rounding up Jews and imprisoning them in an Amsterdam theatre, De Hollandsche Schouwburg (the Jewish Theatre), before deporting them to concentration camps. Walter Suskind was appointed by the Nazi-controlled Amsterdam Jewish Council to serve as the head of deportation. At the same time, he was a leader of the Resistance Movement.
Directly across the street from the Schouwburg was a nursery, the Crêche, staffed by kind and caring nurses. Infants and children through age 13 were separated from their parents held in the Schouwburg and were kept in the Crêche. As the deportations of Jews escalated, Suskind devised plans to smuggle many of the children to safety, often by distracting the German guards. He became friendly with Amsterdam's high-ranking Commandant Ferdinand Aus der Fuenten and his cronies; over time Suskind was seen by his fellow Jews as a Nazi collaborator, and they despised him. Only a few people directly involved with rescuing the children knew the real Walter Suskind. Interviewees in the film called him "a sphinx-like character," "a strange and secretive man," with a "salesman's personality." In reality he was a humanitarian, a hero and a man of the highest integrity. During the two and a half years that Suskind headed the Schouwburg deportations, he is credited with saving almost 1,000 infants and children who were ultimately placed in safe houses throughout Holland.
Indelible images of babies and children
The story of Walter Suskind is told primarily by some of the children he saved, now in their sixties and seventies, by nurses at the Crêche, Dutch Resistance fighters, and historians. The images of the adorable babies and beautiful children doomed to die are heartbreaking. The Crêche nurses exemplify the courage of those who rescued the children and those who gave them a home. Sieny Cohen-Kattenburg, a Crêche nurse, says calmly and vividly that it was her job to "find out which families would be willing to part with their children" on the eve of deportation to the camps. She asked their permission to keep the children at the Crêche for safekeeping. "The parents were given only a few hours to make a decision," she adds. The parents who agreed to leave their children — obviously a heart-wrenching decision — were given a blanket with a doll or a pillow inside, and instructed not to open it. The children were hidden in the attic of the Crêche building until they could be safely smuggled out and delivered into the hands of the Dutch Underground.
Secret Courage is an outstanding documentary. It brings an almost forgotten, overlooked story to life, eloquently told by those who lived it. It celebrates many heroes and heroines, reminds us of unspeakable cruelty, but above all it allows Walter Suskind to take his rightful place in history. In the tradition of fine films, it encourages deeper thought on human response to catastrophic events — for example, what choices did people make under the most harrowing conditions imaginable?
Walter Suskind made many fateful choices that saved innocent lives, but in the end he was unable to save himself and his family. His wife Hannah and young daughter Yvonne had been deported to Westerbork, a concentration camp. He could have remained in a safe house in Amsterdam, but he chose to be deported in hopes of rescuing his family. But in a cruel twist of fate, the Suskinds were sent to Auschwitz, where Hannah and Yvonne were immediately gassed. The cause of Walter Suskind's death at Auschwitz has never been determined, but one theory suggests that he was killed by Dutch inmates in the camp, believing he was a Nazi collaborator. Another is that he died on the prisoners' "death march" when the camp was evacuated.
At the end of the film, one of the saved children, Fred van Vliet, offers a simple but eloquent summary of the Holocaust and Suskind's role in it: "They [the Nazis] tried to kill us, but we succeeded, we survived. And here we are." As living proof, he displays a family photo of his smiling children and grandchildren.
The Morses' journey
In a pre-screening interview at Union Hall, Tim and Karen Morse trace the steps that led them to Walter Suskind. "I was a photographer for the Wang Center for eight years," he explains, "and in 1998 I was hired to produce a 15-minute film for the tenth anniversary of the Walter Suskind Memorial Education Fund." This fund for children's performing arts was begun by retired Newton psychoanalyst Dr. Ries Vanderpol, a Dutch Holocaust survivor, who first made Suskind's heroism public in the Netherlands and the U.S. His wife Netty had been a nurse at the Crêche during the war.
On September 11, 2001, three of Tim's close friends died on Flight 11, the first plane to hit the World Trade Center. "I began to think about the concept of 'hero,' about an ordinary person acting under extreme circumstances," he says. Thus began what he calls his "life-changing goal," telling the full story of one such man "who did make a difference." With thirty years of experience as a professional still photographer and video producer behind him and with Karen as co-producer, Tim enlisted the help of Dr. Vanderpol and his wife, Netty, as creative and historical consultants. Plans for the documentary were underway by November 2002. Almost three years and $174,000 later, and after three trips to the Netherlands to record interviews, the 82-minute documentary was finished and ready for viewing.
A gala private premiere was held at Babson College on September 26, attended by 400 people, including several interviewees from Holland. The Morses now plan to enter the film in two prestigious film festivals, Sundance and Berlin, and to encourage cable and broadcast TV stations to air it. Karen underscores the educational component of Secret Courage and is working with prominent educational organizations — including Facing History and Ourselves and Discovering Justice — to show the film.
Fundraising is, of course, a critical part of any independent filmmaker's
project. The Morses have tapped their retirement fund and have also
won financial support from a variety of sources, but are still heavily
in debt. "We're about one-third of the way to our goal of $174,000,"
says Karen, and additional donations are gratefully accepted. [To contribute,
go to www.morsephotography.com/suskindfilm.]
© 2005 The Carlisle Mosquito