Rambling ...

I'm an Irish Girl, A Dubliner, with the 'Gift of the Gab' ... I like to talk & to tell you things. In Celtic times news, views and comment were carried from place to place by wandering Seanachaí ~ Storytellers ~ who relied on their host's hospitality and appreciation. I will need that from you too, as I venture to share Politics, Poetry, Laughter, Love, Life & everything in-between ... from Bog to Blog!!

Friday, March 11, 2011

A Courageous Compassionate Champion!!

"He who saves one life, saves the world entire." ~ Talmud.

"Another Holocaust story?" might be an understandable reaction to "The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler,"  but that would do a disservice to this fine Hallmark Hall of Fame production.  I originally thought "Oh no not just another hall mark moment I hope it doesn't spoil this somewhat special story".  Irena's story is one of compassion and courage and the highest ideals of humanity in the face of the worst inhumanity.  It didn't!

 The film beautifully crafted by director John Harrison tells the story of Irena Sendler who during the second world war was responsible for smuggling 2,500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw ghetto and hiding them with Polish families.  

Sendler (1910-2008) was a Polish Catholic social worker who, during the occupation of Poland, worked closely with the Żegota group, formed by exiled Poles to aid Jews during the Nazi occupation of Poland. The group provided relief to Jews in ghettoes & labour camps and smuggled thousands of Jews to safety. Working with several dozen other Żegota volunteers, Sendler began smuggling Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto. As an experienced non-Jewish social worker, Sendler had permission to travel freely into and out of the Ghetto to study and treat the constant typhus outbreaks there.  In fact it was her charge from the Nazi government of the ghetto.  It soon became clear to her that everyone left in the ghetto was destined to either die of hunger or disease, or be shipped away in trains, never to return. 

 The Jewish mothers in the ghetto knew this too, which is why they tearfully entrusted their children to Sendler and her accomplices. Together, they smuggled the children out in empty streetcars at the end of their shift, ambulances, fire trucks, under grown mens' overcoats, through the cellars of buildings abutting the edge of the ghetto, in boxes, under blankets, in trucks, through sewage canals. Sendler's ingenuity knew no limits. The infants were given sedatives and put in tiny wooden boxes with unobtrusive breathing holes. Young children who could not stop crying after being separated from their mothers were smuggled out in a cleaning-supplies truck. The driver, who was part of the conspiracy, would step on his guard dog's paws just before the checkpoint, so that the dog's bellowing would mask the Jewish child's sobbing. Sendler kept track of the names of the rescued children by engraving them on spoons or placing lists of names in jars buried in a Warsaw garden. Altogether some 2,500 children were rescued. Every Pole who participated in these actions (and there were hundreds of them) risked execution.

After the children arrived on the 'Aryan' side, they were placed with individual families, or in orphanages or childrens' homes, usually run by the Catholic Church. They were given (and taught) new names and identities. Of course, all of the families and organizations who took the children in risked death ~ that was the punishment for Poles who concealed Jews during the occupation. Sendler herself was denounced in 1943 by another member of the organization, who gave up her name under torture. Sendler was incarcerated in the Pawiak prison and tortured herself. She refused, however, to give up the names of fellow Żegota members or reveal the location of the lists of the rescued children. She was sentenced to death. Shortly before the sentence was to be carried out, the Żegota managed to bribe an SS guard with a large package of dollars, and he set Sendler free on the streets of Warsaw, claiming that she had been shot while trying to escape. According to Sendler, the bribe was later discovered, and the SS officers involved shot.

After recovering from her severe injuries, Sendler lived out the rest of the war in the underground, continuing to actively aid the resistance. After the war, she and her accomplices began the process of tracing the children they had rescued from the ghetto, using the buried lists and other pieces of information. Most of the families of the children had, of course been gassed to death in Treblinka, so the next problem became what to do with the rescued Jewish orphans. Some stayed with their foster families, but others were placed in Jewish orphanages, and many ended up emigrating to Eretz Israel. Eventually, they came to realize they'd all been rescued by the same person, and many of them now hold regular reunions.  It is to be noted that not a single rescued child of hers was ever discovered or betrayed by the Nazis.  

After the war, Sendler received little recognition for her wartime deeds.  However, the new state took advantage of her extensive training and experience in social work, and she rose in the ranks of the post-war state healthcare system.  In 1965, she was recognized as one of Righteous Among Nations at Yad Vashem, and, after the collapse of Communism in Poland, she was gradually recognized as a national heroine.

The Film & Anna Paquin have managed to capture something of the ordinariness of Irena as a Catholic social worker in war time Warsaw who saw injustice and saw that something needed to be done and in the film the extraordinary actions she takes are not played down, but are portrayed with a sense that this is the sort of thing that ordinary human beings should do in the face of injustice and tyranny, there is no super human super hero ascetic here. In fact that is important.  as it is an act of mercy in the face of the horrendous shadow of the myth of the super human ayran race.

It was important also to have a voice for the stories of women and children and so see a story not told from the perspective of men. In an interview on the Movie, Paquin says that this is the sort of role model that young women need to have placed before them. The film does not shy away from some of the issues and problems faced by Sendler, the concern that Jewish children would be forced to convert to Catholicism, the collusion of the polish people with the de-humanisation of the Jews. It also pays homage to the mothers of Jewish Children and polish women who were willing to go to such lengths to see these children saved from the holocaust. 

A spine-chilling moment of the movie is that when she finds one of the toughest task to accomplish ~ to convince the families to handover the children to unknown Christian rescuers and the relatives fear the pain of separation. The children were then emptied at a place called Treblinka ~ a Death camp  ~ solely raised to execute Jewish people.  There are scenes so beautifully crafted where Jewish mothers had to make hard decisions about what to do with their children and the amazing scenes of courageous women opening their arms and their homes to those children that it moved me to tears.  The symmetry of open arms having children wrenched from them and open arms welcoming them was very effective!

This film was an adaptation of a play  "Life in a Jar"   produced by four high school students in Kansas, USA as part of a history project in 1999. Irena's story was known in Poland and Israel where she has been greatly honoured but unknown to the rest of the world.   For many years her altruistic story was relatively unknown, even though she was given due credit from Yad Vashem in 1965 and recognition from the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous in New York City. Her story was buried in her own country by haughty communists.  The movie finishes with a clip of Sendler deflecting any glory from herself to invite us to remember the mothers who were willing to suffer so much for their children both in willing to give them up and also to welcome them.

She was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize ~ yet it is majorly disheartening to note that the Nobel committee failed to recognise her outstanding service for humankind. At a time when saving a child commanded immediate death if discovered,  her bold attempt to save 2,500 children did not deserve any recognition from them.  Instead this award in 2007 honoured Al Gore for his Global Warming Hoax!!!!

Anna Paquin’s performance as the selfless Irena is raw & real,  and the rest of the cast consists of Nathaniel Parker as Dr. Majkowski, head of Warsaw’s Department of Health and Marcia Gay Harden, who portrayed as Irena’s mother, Janina.   Granted, the movie only sparingly touches upon the depth of the Nazi atrocities, and the evidence of them toward the end ~ brutal as it is ~ proves relatively tame in light of what transpired in reality.   Yet as directed by John Kent Harrison (who also co-wrote the adaptation of Anna Mieszkowskia's biography), there's persistent tension throughout the movie, with the constant danger of exposure.  As with "Schindler's List",   this is another World War II tale of gentile heroism, with Irena's efforts ultimately saving more than 2,500 children. Even in a slightly sanitized form, it's edgier than most recent "Hallmark Hall of Fame" entries .... with a powerful central performance by Paquin, if slightly underdeveloped parts for Marcia Gay Harden and Goran Visnjic as her mother and a former schoolmate, respectively.

Shot in Latvia (by cinematographer Jerzy Zielinski),  the movie also does a meticulous job re-creating the era in a manner that looks every bit as bleak as it should.    Sendler recalls her Ghetto trauma  .....  “Did the World help me when I was saving these children?   I walked the streets, crying over my helplessness”.  

Shortly before her death in 2008,  she said .....  “The world has learned nothing from the lessons of World War II and the Shoah”.   And,  given that this is Israeli "Apartheid" Week in the World,  I'm obliged to agree!


  1. I have not seen the movie, but you make it sound very good. I enjoyed watching "Schindler's List," and I enjoyed reading "The Diary of Anne Frank" and "The Hiding Place" (and many years ago, I used to have an old LP record of Corrie Ten Boom talking about her family hiding Jews in their house and her time in the concentration camp), so I imagine I would probably enjoy the movie.

    In an interview on the Movie, Paquin says that this is the sort of role model that young women need to have placed before them.

    At first I thought she may have said that merely to promote the movie (as actors/actresses often do), though such a statement would nevertheless still be very commendable. But in the video you posted (which, BTW, I have now posted on my Facebook page), as well as in an interview HERE, she does indeed seem sincerely impressed and inspired by the life story of Irena Sendler.

    ...the concern that Jewish children would be forced to convert to Catholicism...

    Forced conversion is never a good thing.

    She was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize ~ yet it is majorly disheartening to note that the Nobel committee failed to recognise her outstanding service for humankind.

    You might be interested in reading an old blog article of mine:
    The Jewish People

    At a time when saving a child commanded immediate death if discovered, her bold attempt to save 2,500 children did not deserve any recognition from them. Instead this award in 2007 honoured Al Gore for his Global Warming Hoax!!!!