Miracle at Moreaux

by Mindy Kirkland

The film, Miracle at Moreaux is set during World War II, in Nazi occupied France. Although the film itself is fictional, in actuality events such as the ones depicted in this film transpired all through the war. Based on the novel Twenty and Ten written by Claire Huchet Bishop, this film helps to spotlight the prejudices so prevalent in Nazi - occupied France. The film was produced by Janice Platt of Wonderworks, directed by Paul Shapiro, and the screenplay was written by Mr. Shapiro and Jeffrey Cohen.

The film opens with three Jewish children and their guide attempting to reach The Stone House, a Catholic convent school in Moreaux Pass, near the Basque border of Spain. They are to meet a contact there and be taken to Spain and ultimately freedom. The area is controlled by the German army, and the underground resistance, although active, is frustrated by constant Nazi surveillance. It is the holiday season, and children at the local Catholic school are excited about the coming holidays and are preparing a Christmas play to entertain their parents when they come to visit.

The Jewish children, Daniel, Anna his sister, and Sabine, a friend, have been traveling for some time and are cold and hungry. They hide in the woods on the outskirts of the grounds of the Catholic school while their guide sneaks into the kitchen to steal some food. As he rummages through the kitchen, Sister Gabrielle, the headmistress of the school, comes in and discovers the intruder. She asks the intruder if he realizes he is stealing from children, and he replies that he is stealing for children. Sister Gabrielle decides not to do anything, as she knows that many in the country are hungry.

This exchange is interrupted when Sergeant Schlimmer arrives to introduce a new officer from the Gestapo, Major Braun. Braun informs Sister Gabrielle that due to some incidents in the area, the roads have been closed to all civilian traffic, meaning the parents will not be able to visit their children for the holidays. Meanwhile, one of the convent children visiting the kitchen sees the guide hiding there. She runs to get Sister Gabrielle, and the intruder escapes through the back door where the German officers kill him, to the horror of the Jewish children. The youngest, Anna, runs toward her guide lying on the ground. Sister Gabrielle sees her coming toward the corpse and the Nazis, and intercepts her. Sister Gabrielle wraps Anna in her cloak, pretending that she is one of the regular school children. Anna is taken inside, and sheltered by the nuns.

Daniel and Sabine, still hiding in the woods that night are unsure what to do. Daniel is unwilling to leave without his sister, yet is not confident about approaching the school, even after the officers have departed. Finally, they can wait no longer and go inside to rescue Anna. Sister Gabrielle persuades them to stay for the night; but the Major returns on the premise of apologizing to the children for the events of the day. Daniel, Anna and Sabine hide, but the Major is still suspicious. The convent children are not happy about these events: they know the punishment for harboring Jews in Nazi - occupied France and are afraid for Sister Gabrielle, and for themselves. They are also faced with their own prejudices and at first are unable to reach out to their unwanted guests.

Yet, being children, they cannot hold themselves back for very long. One by one, they all come to the upper floor where Daniel, Sabine and Anna are trying to rest and offer blankets and companionship. Daniel tells their story, of the hardships they have suffered to get this far, and the ice is broken. Daniel tells the story of Hanukkah, and the children are captivated.

Meanwhile, the Jewish children's passports are found on the guide's body and now the Nazis know whom they are searching for. Major Braun is intent on capturing the children, but wants to make sure his unit also gets the local contact for the escape route. So, a trap is set with officers stationed in the woods to follow the children and arrest them at the point of contact. Back at the school, the children are planning a trap of their own, dressing two sets of children in identical clothing. The first set will leave and lure the soldiers into following them, the second set, Daniel, Sabine and Anna, will hide until André, one of the students familiar with the area can meet them and lead them to the Moreaux Pass and safety in Spain.

As the children prepare to depart, Sister Gabrielle gathers all the children in prayer. She presses a St. Christopher medal into little Anna's hand, as protection for their journey. As they recite the 23 Psalm, the children, united in purpose at last, get ready to put on the play of their lives. Sergeant Schlimmer has warned Sister Gabrielle that he has been sent to watch the school, so they all know that this is a very dangerous evening.

Nevertheless, the soldiers fall for the trap, and track the school children through the woods and back to the school. The Major is confused by this and travels to the school to question the children and Sister Gabrielle. Meanwhile, Daniel, Sabine and Anna find their hiding place, but Anna drops the St. Christopher medal on the ground. The children are found by Sergeant Schlimmer, but he allows them to pass unharmed. André meets them, takes them to their contact, and they are off on the second part of their journey.

Sergeant Schlimmer arrives back at the school while the Major is questioning Sister Gabrielle. Sergeant Schlimmer interrupts the interrogation with the welcome news that there is no sign of the escaping children

This movie, filmed in 1985 with Loretta Swit of M.A.S.H. fame as Sister Gabrielle, is a very touching account of the plight of the Jews during World War II. While these fictitious children made it to safety, thousands of others lost their lives in concentration camps or on the road to freedom, hunted like animals. The scenery is excellent and the costumes are very authentic. Robert Joy as Major Braun, the zealot Nazi is perfect. His hatred for Jews permeates his every word and action. Ken Pogo plays Sergeant Schlimmer, the "kind" German officer who allows the children to escape. The casting is strong, the only questionable role being that of Loretta Swit as Sister Gabrielle. She did a fine job, but many viewers will still have difficulty forgetting her as "Hot Lips Houlihan". Certainly one of the detriments of modern television is the way it places excellent actors and actresses into stereotypical dramatic coffins.

The title of the film, Miracle at Moreaux, is actually a misnomer. What was the miracle? Was the miracle Daniel, Sabine and Anna evading capture and finding safety with Sister Gabrielle? Was the miracle the softening of the school children's attitude toward the Jewish children? Was the miracle the brilliant plan of escape, worked so effectively by the school children? Was the miracle Sergeant Schlimmer's humanity in allowing the children to meet their contact and reach safety?

The miracle seems to have been a quiet one of the heart. The Jewish children had to trust someone, and the school children strove to be worthy of that trust. In the end, these Jewish children united, if only for a moment, people with different beliefs and different agenda, allowing them to give of themselves to save the lives of three innocent victims. This type of heroism was played out in many different places all through the war, and many gave their lives to help just one person to safety. These quiet, unsung heroes deserve the utmost respect.

There are many films and books that have been written about this subject. One of the best, the film The Angel of Bergen-Belsen, the story of Luba Tryszynska who saved 54 Jewish children from the Nazis while working as a nurse to German soldiers. It contains interviews of survivors and Luba, providing a detailed portrait of a woman who was compelled to action in the face of horror and evil. The Courage to Care: Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust by Carol Rittner, R.S.M. and Sondra Myers is both a film and book available about ordinary people, quiet heroes, who by sheltering someone in need, helped to make the world a better place. The University of South Florida College of Education maintains an excellent web site, The Florida Center for Instructional Technology. This site contains short biographies, film reviews, museum listings and links to many other sites and resources dedicated to holocaust education. Their web site is www.fcit.coedu.usf.edu/holocaust/resource.

"Courage is never alone, for it has fear as its ever-present companion. An act deserves to be called courageous if and only if, it is performed in spite of fear. The greater the fear, the more courageous the action that defies it. Thus, it is only when fear and anxiety rule supreme that courage can truly assert itself."
Shlomo Breznitz,
The Courage