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Secret Courage: The Story of Walter Suskind

Secret Courage: The Story of Walter Suskind

by Polly Attwood

Although the actual 30th Anniversary of the founding of the Concord-Carlisle Human Rights Council will take place in the ’08-’09 year, the Council marked it’s beginning – the meetings that led to it – this year. Those meetings were the ‘Climate for Freedom’ Forums, emphasizing the premise that ‘the climate of the community is the responsibility of the community’. If you believe that is true, then it follows that you must have faith in the idea that people – individually or in groups – can be agents for change.

To illustrate this concept, the Council chose to show the film, ‘Secret Courage: The Story of Walter Suskind’, to honor both Suskind himself, and Tim and Karen Morse, who researched and produced this powerful documentary. It was shown on September 20th in Concord, attended by a small group.

Walter Suskind, a German Jew living in Holland during WWII, was responsible for saving hundreds of Jewish children from the death camps. The film captures the stories of those children, as well as some of the nurses who were in charge of them, with amazing clarity and poignancy. Suskind’s position on the committee in charge of deportations, and his seemingly friendly relationship with the Germans, was a double-edged sword. He was able to alert those about to be deported to the death camps, giving them the chance to have their children taken away to safety while, at the same time, it laid him open to charges of collaboration with the Germans.

I came away from this film haunted by two moments in particular. Children were separated from their parents, and put into the ‘Creche’, while their parents were held elsewhere, awaiting deportation to the camps. German officers visited the Creche often, and took particular notice of one small Jewish boy – a very beautiful and endearing child. One of the nurses, tracked down by the Morses, explained how the fact that this child was noticed by, and was a favorite of the Germans, meant that the child was doomed. There was no way to smuggle him away to safety without his absence being noticed by the authorities. His very popularity with those officers meant that Suskind was unable to save him from death in the camps, which was his ultimate fate.

Walter Suskind and his daughter Yvonne, 1940.

The second thing that haunts me is that no-one really knows how Suskind died. We know that he chose to stay with his family, rather than save himself, and ended up in Auschwitz. There are two versions of his death. One version says that he survived until the Death March from Auschwitz, when he was shot and killed after collapsing on the road. The second account says that he was killed by fellow prisoners because they believed him to be a collaborator.

There are, of course, other stories, images and heartbreaks in this film, as well as the overwhelming sadness that these things could ever have been done by human beings to other human beings. But the film leaves something else, too: an almost fierce sense of triumph that one person could do so much good in the face of odds beyond belief; that lives were saved, that those children grew and survived because of one man’s actions; that it matters what one person does; that there are no excuses for leaving it to someone else; that we are all, like it or not, agents of change.

For more information about Secret Courage: The Story of Walter Suskind, please go to:

Photos courtesy of The National Center for Jewish Film

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