Nearly 20 years ago, documentary filmmaker Vassilis Loules visited the Jewish Museum in Athens, where he was moved by seeing objects from Greek Jewish children hidden during the Holocaust.
He started looking for new documents and visiting survivors to tell a story of childhood, rather than another film about the tragedy during the Second World War. He also became a father during the filmmaking process, and was deeply affected by the idea of a child growing up in silence, with a fake name and hiding their identity.
“For me it was a very good opportunity to shed light to [child psychology],” Loules said. “How is it for a child to stay for a year and a half in an apartment, a house, in silence, without even a walk? Without screaming. Without playing.”
His film Kisses to the Children focuses on five Greek Jewish children. The life of one of them, Rosina, almost directly parallels the most famous young victim of the Holocaust – Anne Frank.
“She was hidden for a year and a half in an apartment in Thessaloniki, north Greece. And she also kept a diary,” Loules said. “So it’s another Anne Frank story, but with a happy ending, because she survived. As well as all of my five characters.”
They lived, but lost their innocence and the chance for a normal childhood. In the film, these men and women, now in their 70s and 80s, describe the difficult emotions and feelings of their childhood. But they almost always long for what they missed.
“This documentary gave them the opportunity to go back to their experience and relive it,” Loules said. “Very strong and painful emotions, but at the same time, there are some moments of relax. Some moments of dreaming. Some moments of feeling peaceful with the families who held them in their arms.”
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SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Vassilis Loules, welcome to World Views.
VASSILIS LOULES: Thank you very much.
GRILLOT: Well, Vassilis, as a documentary filmmaker, fiction writer, and director as well, you've got a long history of making film. But I think one of the interesting things that has been said about your work is that you tend to focus on people's little stories and the turbulence of history. Can you start there by telling us what you mean by that? Why focus on turbulent history, and then people's little stories? What do you mean by that?
LOULES: I love making films about people in turbulent points in history. In this situation you can see everything of the human being. Everything a character has in his or her shoulders is coming up into these circumstances. When you live a peaceful life, everything goes well. But everything is ready to turn upside down when you are obliged to face history or the obstacles of history. On the other hand, I don't like to deal with the people who make the history - the politicians or the generals. Even though there are points, some details of their lives, that are worth dealing with, I prefer instead to focus on the everyday, the ordinary people. They are simple, everyday stories. They are the persons who must face their fate.
GRILLOT: So they're the ones who have to endure the decisions that are made by those, who as you say, make history. You're focusing on the ones who experience history, perhaps. Would you consider them to be the victims of history in that they're having to live in this turbulent world in these changing times. Are you focusing on the victimized nature of the ordinary citizen, or just the resiliency of the ordinary citizen? Or are both of these coming up? As you said, everything comes, the soul is shown during these times of troubles.
LOULES: You said the magic word - resilience. This is exactly what I'm trying to see in my films through the personal observations of them. I think in the turbulence of history, you can find people who - apart from their suffering, from their pain, their losses - they keep alive in their souls the flame of hope. And this is what I try to bring up.
GRILLOT: So the people you're focusing on are enduring their experiences, and from that emerges a sense of hope that people can overcome and be resilient, and endure their experiences. There's something, I guess, rather human about that, right? In the sense that no matter where you go, no matter whose turbulent history you're talking about, that humans find a way to endure their circumstances and overcome the decisions that are being made by those, who you said, are making that history? That that's also, perhaps, a message you're trying to send? That this is something that binds all of us together?
LOULES: Yes. Yes exactly. But I think the most interesting thing is the way you can do it in a film. Because otherwise what you're talking about is all psychological. But how is it when you're trying to do it into a film? How is it when you're trying to make the people to talk about their experience? How is it to make them to go back to their experience and to feel it again?
GRILLOT: So capturing that on film so that we can tap into that emotion, that experience, that actual sense of resilience?
LOULES: Yes. And somehow I feel more as a psychoanalyst than as a director, sometimes.
GRILLOT: Helping them address those issues that they've had to face.
LOULES: Yes. Because to help them, to go back to their experience and to clean the dirties that had been put in the time from then to our days. Because, as you know, when someone is asked, 'OK, tell me your story about your childhood,' he or she is trying to tell you a ready, a constructed story. A story full of real emotions and moments, but also full of reconstructed thoughts, of wishes, of images from other people. So my work is that I try to clean the world, and then leave the stones clear. Even with holes, there are some parts of it well-done, but there are other parts with ruins. My work is to bring up the world in its first situation, before the repair.
GRILLOT: But let's talk about your current project, the film Kisses to the Children focuses on five Greek Jewish children who were saved by Christian families during the German occupation of Greece. Obviously, when any of us think about children and the experience of young people during the Holocaust, we think of Anne Frank automatically. And that tends to be our generalization of what young people experienced during that time. But that isn't the case. There were many, many, many other children that had very different experiences. We don't know much about them. And we certainly don't know much about Greek children and what they experienced during this time. So tell us a little bit about that project, and why you decided to focus on that particular turbulent experience and work with these young people who then grew up to live beyond the war.
LOULES: You know, in my own film, there are five Jewish children. Five Jewish Greek children. One of them, Rosina, is a kind of the Greek Jewish Anne Frank. Because she was hidden for a year and a half in an apartment in Thessaloniki, north Greece. And she also kept a diary. So it's another Anne Frank story, but with a happy ending, because...
GRILLOT: She survived that experience.
LOULES: ...she survived. As well as all of my five characters. They are among the few Greek Jewish children who were saved. Who weren't arrested. Who didn't feel the atrocities of the concentration and extermination camps in Poland and Germany. They are children who had the good luck to be harbored by Greek Christians.
GRILLOT: So is this perhaps part of the reason why we don't know much about them, is they actually survived?
LOULES: Yes, because they're not victims in the common sense of the word. But on the other hand, for me it was a very good opportunity to shed light to the childish psychology. How is it for a child to stay for a year and a half into an apartment, a house, in silence, without even a walk. Without screaming. Without playing.
GRILLOT: They weren't able to be children. They weren't able to have that normal life.
LOULES: Yeah. They are obliged to mature early. Early and abruptly. It's very interesting, in my film, how these men and women, old men and women now, are talking about the bad and very difficult emotions and feelings they had as children. While at the same time, they almost always want to again be a child.
GRILLOT: So even now, because they missed that as young...
LOULES: They missed a lot of moments as a child. But they do like to like to go back. And this documentary gave them the opportunity to go back to their experience and relive it. To feel again some of the emotions they had at the time. Very strong and painful emotions, but at the same time, there are some moments of relax. Some moments of dreaming. Some moments of feeling peaceful with the families who held them in their arms.
GRILLOT: Well, Vassilis, thank you so much for being with us today on World Views to share with us your project, but also for the project. For sharing the stories of those people that we don't normally get to hear from. So thank you very much.
LOULES: Thank you very much.
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