It was 1943 during World War II when 13-year-old Fanny Ben-Ami led a group of Jewish children through Nazi-occupied France. Without any adults, their goal was to reach Switzerland, where they hoped to find sanctuary and survive the war.
Her tale of determination during the Holocaust, based on Ben-Ami’s autobiography, has been dramatized in the film “Fanny’s Journey.” The protagonist and survivor herself, now 86, visited two charter high schools in Miami on Feb. 14 to share her story and promote the movie, which can be seen in theaters in Palm Beach County.
“The message of the movie is to not hate. You need to try and understand one another, because even the one you hate, we don’t know them,” Ben-Ami said. “Understanding each other gives us peace.”
Ben-Ami, who grew up in Vichy, France, was originally placed in a Jewish foster home in Italy. When the Nazis arrived, the caretakers helped the 28 children escape. Without adult supervision, Ben-Ami had to take charge. She told the other children that despite not knowing all of them, they had to follow her if they wanted to live. They had no idea of the concentration camps, only that those of Jewish faith were sent to “the place of no return.”
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The movie version has been dramatized, she said, but the sentiment is the same. She had to help the children.
“I needed to help; it was necessary, I had to rebel against the injustice,” Ben-Ami said. “I had to fight for the kids who didn’t deserve any of this, to be treated like this. That gave me courage.”
After the war ended, the children learned that all their parents were slain. Ben-Ami had no education, no family, yet found a new life in Israel in 1957, and started her autobiography.
Lola Doillon directed “Fanny’s Journey,” a French-Belgian co-production. The third-time director ensured that the movie would be a narrative film rather than a documentary, and she praised working with Ben-Ami.
“Fanny is a remarkable and smart woman, she’s strong and very open,” Doillon wrote in an email. “We’re doing a movie for people to see, but I couldn’t imagine that the film would cross the borders into Miami.”
Leah Bloch, a sophomore at International Studies Charter High School, one of the two schools Ben-Ami visited, loved the movie and was glad she could hear the heroine speak. Once Ben-Ami finished her talk, Bloch quickly went to the front to get an autograph.
“It was really interesting to see how a girl so young had to take care of all the children to safety,” Bloch said. “It was incredible and really touching, and for her to go through all that and tell her story to everyone? Amazing.”
Originally, Doillon said, Ben-Ami was apprehensive about the direction the film was going after seeing a script, saying that some parts of her life were changed. In the past, Ben-Ami led 28 children, but in the movie, to tighten the narrative, the group was reduced to eight.
Doillon said the movie was going to be a work of fiction with a clear message, one which Ben-Ami agreed with: The atrocities toward the Jewish people may have been in the past, but they should not be forgotten, and similar atrocities can be repeated.
“After reflection, Fanny came back to me and told me that it wasn’t important if it wasn’t her precise life,” Doillon said. “The importance was to talk about all the Jewish kids that had to escape Nazism, and to spread the same message.”
Despite the wartime horrors, Doillon wanted the film to be family friendly and chose to cut out any violence.
“I wanted to make a movie on World War II but that children of any age can watch it with their family or teachers, and I hope it opens dialogue,” Doillon said. “For children that know nothing or little of the war, the movie is more an adventure movie with kids.”
The movie also has modern relevance, Doillon said, noting the current worldwide refugee crisis. While shooting a scene involving small children escaping a country, she saw a similar image on television — of Syrian refugees.
“It was shocking because it wasn’t 70 years ago but today, and it was the same injustice towards children as it is in all wars,” Doillon said. “Sometimes it’s easier to talk about something that happened 70 years ago and to slide slowly into what’s happening today. So if this movie can open the dialogue about what is happening today, then I’m glad about it.”
“Fanny’s Journey” opened in France in May 2016 to great reviews, before being shown throughout Europe and at the Miami Jewish Film Festival in late January. Festival director Igor Shteyrenberg tracked the movie since its production, raving about Ben-Ami’s story and hailing her as a hero.
“I’m glad we could secure it for our film festival; it was an incredibly uplifting movie that showed the strengths of determination, perseverance that could really speak to the community,” Shteyrenberg said. “You don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy the movie, this is a movie that speaks to all people. A movie that can pull heartstrings.”
If you go
“Fanny’s Journey” is being shown at Living Room Theaters FAU and Regal Shadowood 16 in Boca Raton. It opens March 3 at AMC Aventura 24 theaters.