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The Children of 209 Saint-Maur Street

The Children of 209 Saint-Maur Street

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209 rue St. Maur is a classic Parisian apartment building in the 10th arrondissement: Stone, built around a courtyard, shops on the bottom floor. In the first decades of the 20th century, it was home to some 300 working class people, about a third of them Jewish.

And then came the Nazi occupation. Parents rounded up and deported. Children left on their own. Neighbors hiding Jewish kids under the blankets.

THE CHILDREN OF 209 SAINT-MAUR STREET is filmmaker Ruth Zylberman’s painstakingly researched reconstruction of life in the building before and during the Second World War. (At one point she wrote to every single person in France with a particular last name trying to find a resident of the building.) There’s the small grocer whose husband is deported and who loses her business when it is “Aryanized.” The deaf woman who eagerly writes down the names and locations of Jews so the Nazis can find them. The girl whose father hid Jews in the apartment and threatened to murder his collaborator son if anything should happen to them. And the Jewish children themselves, now elderly, many living abroad, who recall the rumors of roundups, the hiding, and the friends they played with. “I wonder if all of this was real,” one of them, the son of Polish immigrants, says.

In one particularly emotional sequence, Zylberman finds Henry Osman, a 79-year-old American whose parents placed him in the care of an organization that hid Jewish children. Osman knows almost nothing about them. And he’s not sure he wants to know. He’s put that all behind him. But Zylberman has documents and photos. She convinces him to come to 209, where he stares at the flagstones in the courtyard, and wonders if his parents once walked on them.

Zylberman creates a living reconstruction of 209, using a drawing of the building and appending images and archival documents about individuals to it. During interviews, she sparks memories with models of everyday objects like furniture or sewing machines. Throughout the film, we also see images of daily life in the building today, as children practice music and families come and go with their groceries.

For the documentary’s final scene, she invites all the now-elderly “children” who lived here to return to the building. Some come with their own descendants. It’s as though the pieces of the puzzle she has spent years assembling have finally come together.

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