Film & Television

‘The Invisibles’

In 1943, after two years of deportation and executions, Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Minister of Propaganda, announced that Berlin was Judenrein, clean of Jews.

But he was wrong.

Nearly 7,000 Jews remained (out of a population of about 160,000 just eight years earlier). Some had jobs that were critical to the war effort. Some were exempt because they had married Aryans. But 1,400 survived, concealed by loyal friends or compassionate strangers, or, as the engrossing German film The Invisibles explains, by “hiding in plain sight.”

Jews had lived in Berlin since the thirteenth century. They were evicted from the city in 1573, but returned 100 years later. By the early twentieth century, the population had grown and Jews held prominent positions in education, finance, and the arts. After World War I, the Jewish People’s Party or Judische Volkspartei, was formed. There were 115 synagogues and houses of prayer, Jewish hospitals and medical clinics, youth centers and sports clubs, and separate Jewish schools, including 15 kindergartens.

The point is this. These were not “illegal immigrants” or some fringe minority group. They considered themselves Jewish and German. Although many emigrated in the 1930s as Nazi restrictions became harsher, about half the city’s Jews remained. In 1941, voluntary emigration was officially prohibited and mass deportations to ghettos and camps began. In 1942, Berlin’s Jews were forced to wear yellow stars.

And, in 1943, for P.R. purposes if not total accuracy, the city was declared free of Jews.

In The Invisibles, Claus Räfle’s powerful film, co-written by Räfle and Alejandra López, we meet four now elderly survivors: Ruth Arndt Gumpel, Hanni Lévy, Cioma Schönhaus, and Eugen Friede. They tell their stories, each of which is a study in bravery and resilience. The film’s subtitle in German is Die wir leben wollen, or “We want to live.”

Intercut with these interviews are dramatizations of each person’s history. These beautifully acted glimpses of the past don’t detract from the real-life first-person narratives. In fact, they complement them and add the palpable sense of danger that the survivors have put behind them. The combination is masterful, and owes its success to the director’s precise pacing, the talents of the actors who portray Gumpel, Lévy, Schönhaus, and Friede, as well as their persecutors and saviors, and the compelling and courageous testimonies of the real people. As in so many other Holocaust interviews we’ve seen (including those collected by Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation), these subjects relive their experiences in simple prose, remembering vivid details while keeping their emotions in check. They survived a nightmare beyond human comprehension but are determined to share their stories, not only to ensure that we fully understand what they went through, but also to honor the memories of those who helped them.

Ruth Arndt was a lively teenager who enjoyed dancing, was enamored of her boyfriend Bruno, and imagined a future in America. When the Nazis announce the last round of deportation, her entire family goes into hiding. Gentile friends help at first, but it becomes more and more difficult to hide so many people together. Ruth eventually lives in a storage room with another teenager, Ellen Lewinsky. They realize that if they dress as war widows, under black hats with veils, they can venture out in public without being accosted for identification papers. Their story includes close calls — all of the survivors are terrified of being recognized by people they formerly knew — as well as some giddy moments of girlish friendship. Eventually, they are taken in by a high-ranking SS officer and his wife, who employ them as maids and nannies. It’s startling to see someone we would assume should be a reprehensible villain show compassion for the very people he has been tasked to eliminate.

While Ruth depends upon and is buoyed by a network of helpers and other outlaws, Hanni Lévy feels completely alone. Already fair and with blue eyes, she dyes her dark hair blond and moves through Berlin with anxious impunity. However, she sleeps in parks or wherever she can, going to the cinema often where she can hide in the darkness. We breathe a sigh of relief when the kind woman who works at the movie theater, whose son is fighting with the German army, takes her in and she is finally able to rest. The two become a makeshift family, both victims but under different circumstances.

Young Cioma Schönhaus takes the most risks of the four heroes. A former art student, he forges papers that state his work at a munitions factory is indispensable. So, when he arrives at the station to be deported with his parents, he’s permitted to stay. He moves from boarding house to boarding house, arriving too late to register with the police and leaving too early to do so the next morning. Eventually, his artistic talents are brought to the attention of a doctor who pays him with food coupons to forge passports. Although he has some terrifyingly close calls, he is able to live a fairly good life, bicycling through Berlin, drinking in cafés, even purchasing and enjoying a boat — until he absentmindedly leaves his bag, filled with evidence of his illegal activity, on a train, and becomes a hunted man.

Eugen Friede’s mother is Jewish but has been exempted from transport because her husband is Christian. They arrange for Eugen to move in with a generous German family, who dress him in their son’s Hitler Youth uniform, and serve him excellent meals. The situation is made even sweeter by their flirtatious teenage daughter. He begins to think that being hidden is not that bad but, as in all of the stories, no place is safe for long and he has to move on. Another family he lives with offers refuge to a dissident who has escaped Theresienstadt. Together, they print pamphlets exposing the murderous realities of the so-called work camps. Eventually, Eugen is reunited with his mother and stepfather in an attic, where they are discovered by the Gestapo. Eugen owes his life to the fact that he was arrested mere days before the war was over.

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  • Barbara Lovenheim March 13, 2019 at 3:52 pm

    You might want to read my book Survival in the Shadows : Seven Jews Hidden in Hitler’s Berlin that was published several years ago in the US, England and Germany. It is the detailed story of the Lewinsky and Gumpel families who hid in a small factory for several years, protected by Max and Anne Gehre and some 50 other Germans who were trying to protect Jews. I met and interviewed the Arndt/Gumpel family in my hometown, Rochester, New York, and interviewed them over a period of two years. The book—Survival in the Shadows: Seven Jews Hidden in Hitler’s Berlin— is still selling well — you may want to read it. I thought the film was difficult to follow and muddy, altho’ I liked Ruth’s narrative and thought she did a good job.

    Barbara Lovenheim