Recently the ESRA Cinema Club in Raanana presented the documentary film, Children Without Shadows. This very personal and compelling film of the Holocaust tells the story of Charles David Hilsberg, aged four, who spent his childhood years in Belgium hiding from German soldiers. They would have had him killed, for he was their enemy.
Charles became a “hidden child”, was taken from his family home in Brussels, given a new, fictitious name and placed with strangers. He was instructed to forget his past and he learned to forget. When this “home” became unsafe, there was a move to another “new home” and another unknown family. When danger necessitated a further move, it was to a convent. Charles’s ordeal in Belgium ended in 1949, when, at age 12, he was sent to Israel and changed his name to Shaul Harel.
Life in Israel was, once again, a new beginning with new challenges and new painful episodes. Although the film recounts the continuing friendships and warm bonds of affection with those who cared for him and with friends who shared his youth, there was also the disdain of 'Sabra' contemporaries for the “weak refugee” and their horrific taunts of “sabon” (soap). These abuses forced Shaul to learn resilience and to prove to himself and to others that he was strong and worthy.
A question that is raised in Children Without Shadows is why now, after 60 years, does a successful man with a loving family and friends, go back to explore a past filled with such unbearable trauma? The answer involves the inability of a hidden child to relate the terrible memories of sadness and suffering to those closest to him. Thus, their questions about his past life remain unanswered and they, in turn, instinctively learn not to ask about the past.
Another burden carried by the hidden children emanates from the haunting photos and memories of those who have been lost forever. Shaul’s parents were among these victims. It took tremendous emotional strength and courage to search for the information regarding the fate of his family members and to revisit the places of his childhood, but this process of recreating a shadow, of rebuilding his past, was critical for his release from the terrible frozen trauma of the past and for his ability to speak about his past.
Professor Shaul Harel is a remarkable man. An internationally recognized pediatric neurologist, he was instrumental in founding and directing the first Child Development and Pediatric Neurology Center in Israel. His Curriculum Vitae is long and impressive; it records his achievements in medicine, the chairmanships of national and international organizations, his numerous publications and the many awards that he has received.
The film, with its warmth and humor, elicits a range of emotions in the viewer: admiration for the courage of those who overcame the terrible circumstances of their childhood and forged new and successful lives; gratitude for the extreme bravery of those, Jews and Christians alike, who risked everything to rescue Jewish children; and acclaim for those skilled professionals who produced this touching film in which courage and humanity ultimately triumph.
Debby Lieberman is a developmental psychologist who worked for many years with Shaul Harel in the Tel Aviv Child Developmental and Pediatric Neurology Center.