"My Knees Were Jumping": Children Rescued from World War II
By Dave Ratzlow
Imagine as a child, being sent on an exciting adventure to England but
slowly realizing that you’ll never see your parents again. That’s
exactly what happened to nearly 10,000 children between the ages of 5
and 17 who were sent out of harm’s way from Poland, Austria and
Czechoslovakia in the nine months preceding World War II in a
humanitarian effort called the Kindertransports.
Melissa Hacker’s eloquent documentary “My Knees Were Jumping” artfully
weaves together several touching personal stories with this largely
unknown chapter in history. The film became a labor of love for Hacker,
whose own mother was one of the children rescued from Austria. She
worked on the film for seven years before screening to enthusiastic
audiences at Sundance in 1996. The film also sold out at the Anthology
Film Archives in Manhattan and returns for a limited run this week.
indieWIRE: Did you ever think it would take seven years to finish your film?
Melissa Hacker: Initially, I actually started the film in George Stoney’s class
at NYU. It was going to be a smaller piece about my mother. I always
knew that there was something different about her and our relationship.
She didn’t remember much about her childhood, but she did remember being
on a train with some other children and moving to England, but not much
else. So it wasn’t until I started doing research that I realized that
it was this huge movement and that it was a much larger story, one that
most people didn’t know. So I wanted to include both the larger untold
story but I still also wanted to tell my mother’s story.
I was invited to a reunion of the Kinder Transport children. I met some
of the other families and it just got bigger. I was working as an
assistant editor at the time. I foolishly thought that I could work
nights and weekends on my film, but we all know, that’s a joke
especially if you’re working for a really “good” documentary editor and
you “want” to work extra hours. I really spent most of my free time in
the National Archives and at the Library of Congress in D.C. searching
iW: Is most of it in the public domain?
Hacker: Most of it was, yes. I had to limit what I could use for
financial reasons. But I found some great stuff anyway. The shot that
I used in my poster of the Czech woman waving goodbye at the airport for
example, was actually shot for a Universal newsreel. They were outtakes
that were never used and just sat in a can for 60 years. So I got lucky
with that one.
iW: Personal documentaries seem to be gaining a lot of popularity these
Hacker: When I started, this genre of personal diary and personal
documentary wasn’t yet in place as it is now. But I knew I wanted to
maintain that balance between personal and historical. Still there’s no
real niche for that mix which posed some problems especially when trying
to sell it to television. I showed it to The American Experience, a
series which does very straight traditional documentaries. They loved
it but told me it wasn’t in their style (which I knew beforehand). And
for P.O.V. which does more personal video diaries. I made it to the
final rounds but it wasn’t exactly for them either. But I knew that the
story had to be told this way. I knew that there was an audience for
it. It’s set in a particular piece of history. It’s the story of the
Holocaust and most of these children were Jewish but it’s a story that’s
universal, because it’s a story of loss and families and children and
the secrets between them.
iW: Your subjects from the older generation seem very reserved, almost
nonchalant about their experiences. Do you think that’s due to the
passage of time, or is it a generational thing?
Hacker: I think it’s a generational thing. I did these audio tape
interviews beforehand and almost every time they’d tell me these
horrifying stories they hadn’t told people before and I would cry. I
knew I would cry. It was okay — that was part of it for me. But
they’d get so upset. “Why are you crying? You’re such a nice young
woman. I didn’t mean to upset you,” they’d say — then feed me massive
amounts of food. They pull back, I think, because they don’t want to
upset people. But also, they’re not sure people always want to listen.
Right after the war, a lot of people didn’t want to hear what they’d
been through. They learned not to talk about it. The Kindertransport
people also felt that they were the lucky ones. Their parents sent them
away to be safe while most of them were eventually killed. They weren’t
the ones who really suffered so how could they talk about what they went
through when others went through so much worse?
The second generation, on the other hand, comes from the opposite side,
always wanting to know, to uncover the secrets. The parents a lot of
times didn’t think their kids were interested. But it only seemed that
way. Their children weren’t asking questions because they didn’t want
to upset their parents. I started noticing that the second generation
was so involved and in some ways more emotionally and directly
responsive. And that dynamic was very interesting to me.
iW: What happened with the film at Sundance and in the three years
Hacker: At Sundance, I had a few meetings with a few distributors that
didn’t pan out, and I turned down one. I was probably the only one
there without a PR person. (You should know, it’s this big secret, when
a distributor invites you to dinner at a restaurants where you need a
reservation and everything, that’s a good sign. But if a distributor
invites you to oatmeal breakfast in their condo, that’s not a good
sign.) After Sundance, I traveled for about a year with the film. I
was invited to the International Women’s Film Festival, I went to
Prague, London, and Denver for some reason, they’ve invited me there
three times. Then I started doing universities, which is very good
because they pay a rental for the film and give an honorarium for
Then after a year of traveling, I really needed some money so I put it
aside and took some editing jobs. In the mean time I got a television
sales agent who’s now in negotiations with PBS. I also got an
educational distributor and last summer, and she suggested we try and do
a run in New York. I said “Great!” I never wanted to self-distribute
so it was great to have some help. It’s so hard for documentaries as it
is. But once again, I should have learned my lesson, I didn’t have a PR
person. I did try, but everyone was preparing for Sundance. So I
talked to Oren Rudavsky, who made “Life Apart, Hasidism in America.” He
had a limited run at the Walter Reade and then it transferred to the
Quad. So he was like my press guru. And we had a great response, great
reviews. It was amazing. After the first few days every show was sold
out in advance, which Anthology couldn’t handle actually. It was pretty
“My Knees Were Jumping” returns to New York’s Anthology Film Archives
for a limited engagement until Sunday February 7th.
[Dave Ratzlow is a NY-based freelance writer.]