World War II was one of the darkest times in modern history, but thousands of people risked their lives to shelter Jews from certain death, smuggle documents to give refugees new identities, and countless other acts of heroism. These documentaries highlight the secret efforts of Tour de France champ Gino Bartali, the Catholic Church, and ordinary people who refused to stand by and do nothing in the face of evil, proving in the process that being a resistance “fighter” was not limited to those carrying weapons.
1. My Italian Secret: The Forgotten Heroes (2014)
In this film, narrated by Isabella Rossellini, we learn about several Italians who helped Jews during WWII, including Cyclist Gino Bartali, who risked his own life and his family’s by hiding Jews in his house. He openly defied Mussolini when the Fascists tried to claim credit for his Tour de France victory in 1938. He later smuggled documents in the frame of his bicycle since no one would think to stop the famous athlete. Only after his death did his heroism come to light.
Another unsung hero: A doctor who made up an incurable, highly contagious disease that didn’t exist, so he could admit Jews to a special ward. Even the SS refused to enter. While they were in the hospital, false documents were created with last names that sounded Catholic. They were then sent to convents where they awaited the end of the war.
The Catholic church was instrumental in hiding Jews, including sheltering them in cloisters and disguising them as nuns.
One woman says, “I remember these airplanes dropping leaflets saying, ‘If you’re hiding Jews or Partisans or Jews, you’re dead.’ Still, the entire town was in cahoots to keep our secret.”
Another Jewish woman remembers going out to bring food to the partisans hiding in the hills—even though she and her family were in hiding themselves. (Netflix)
2. Hidden Heroes (1999)
Elderly resistance workers and scholars recall the work of the Dutch Resistance during the Nazi occupation in this moving documentary.
“They were all ordinary people. Butchers, bakers, farmers, teachers,” says Andre Stein, author of Quiet Heroes and Hidden Children. “Everybody knew that if you got caught, you inherited the fate of the Jew.”
One white-haired woman talks about her time as part of an armed resistance group and says, “I have no regrets about shooting Nazis.”
Another was a young woman whose family hid 13 people for three years. She took a job with the Nazi-friendly socialist party and routinely was beaten up on the way home, because neighbors—who didn’t know her family’s secret—considered her a traitor. But her job gave her early warning of Nazi raids, which she used to save dozens of lives.
An elderly member of the Dutch Resistance wishes more had been done earlier, “Of the 140,000 Jewish people in the Netherlands, only 40,000 survived. I wish we could have done more. If we had known it, if we had seen it.”
Thousands of lives were saved, but at a cost. The film’s coda: More than 28,000 people died because of their work in the Dutch Resistance movement. (Vimeo, Amazon)
3. Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War (2016)
In February 1939, an ordinary couple—Unitarian minister Waitstill Sharp and his wife Martha Sharp, a social worker—left their two children at home in Massachusetts and traveled to Czechoslovakia. They succeeded in saving countless Jews, many of whom are interviewed for this documentary.
Their grandson, Artemis Joukowsky, along with filmmaker Ken Burns, documents their dangerous humanitarian mission.
It’s the stuff of Hollywood spy films: The two were given a crash course in spycraft in London before taking the Orient Express to Prague, where they quickly set to work securing visas and working with the Quaker underground to smuggle refugees to London.
The film is told largely through the Sharps’ letters to each other. Waitstill is voiced by Tom Hanks and Martha by Marina Goldman, a stage actress with her own impressive body of humanitarian work in Sierra Leone.
Said Martha Sharp: “Every life we touched had its own drama. One can only manage a miracle every so often, but a series of miracles can happen when many people become concerned and are willing to act at the right time.” (YouTube and Amazon)
4. Irena Sendler: In the Name of Their Mothers (2011)
Between 1939 and 1945, Irena Sendler, a young Polish social worker, led a group of fellow Catholic women in rescuing thousands of Jewish children from the Warsaw ghetto.
Their efforts did not come to light until decades later, having been suppressed during the post-War Communist regime.
In this emotional documentary, Sendler, at age 95, vividly recalls the extraordinary lengths to which she went to save these lives. Among the most heart-breaking: Trying to persuade Jewish parents to entrust her with their children, when she could offer no guarantee of their safety.
Once surrendered, the children were given Catholic names and taught Christian prayers to avoid suspicion. Sendler and her fellow resistors kept thorough records of the children’s Jewish names so that they could be reunited with their parents after the war—a list that put them all at risk of execution.
Sendler, along with the Polish Resistance and the cooperation of convents and orphanages, managed to save the lives of at least 2,500 Jewish children. (On DVD)
5. Enemy of the Reich: The Noor Inayat Khan Story (2014)
An unsung hero of the war, Noor Inayat Khan was the first female radio operator to be sent from Britain into Nazi-occupied France to help the French Resistance. She was also the last, continuing her perilous mission even after her network had been destroyed.
Her story (which inspired the 1979 miniseries A Man Called Intrepid, starring Barbara Hershey) is told through interviews with historians and dramatic recreations in which she is played by Grace Srinivasa.
Khan, the daughter of an American mother and an Indian Muslim father, grew up in the Sufi center of Paris. In 1940, she joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and in 1943, was recruited as a covert agent in Winston Churchill’s Special Operations Executive (SOE).
After the collapse of her network, she became the only link between the British and the French Resistance in Paris and the most wanted woman in Paris. She was eventually betrayed, tortured and executed.
She was posthumously awarded the George Cross in 1949, and a French Croix de Guerre with silver star. (Amazon,Youtube)
6. Karski & The Lords of Humanity (2016)
Filmmaker Slawomir Grünberg blends interview and archival footage with animation to tell the story of Jan Karski (1914-2000), a Roman Catholic member of the Polish underground movement during the Second World War who took it upon himself to witness the extermination of his country’s Jewish population and then to reach London and Washington, where he presented details of the emerging Holocaust to leaders, including FDR.
Inspired by the award-winning film Waltz with Bashir (2008), Grünberg tasked Polish animator Tomasz Niedzwiedz with creating scenes that depict the often-horrific experiences Karski survived. The result is another reminder of the many ways people of conscience fought to counter the atrocities of the Third Reich. —Michael Burgin
Sharon Knolle is a film noir buff, dog lover and founder of Moviepaws.com. You can follow her on Twitter.