Archive for April 28th, 2011

Irena Sendler, “The Female Oskar Schindler”: Interview with filmmaker Mary Skinner, Part 1

Thursday, April 28th, 2011
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She didn't welcome the interviews.

May 1st is Holocaust Remembrance Day – it is also the national premiere of PBS’ In the Name of Their Mothers, a documentary film about the Polish social worker Irena Sendler, who saved 2,500 Jewish babies and children from the Warsaw Ghetto and almost certain death at Treblinka. Sendler’s name and reputation were suppressed by the Communist regime, and she became known in the West about the time of her death in 2008.

California filmmaker Mary Skinner graduated from UC Berkeley’s renowned theater program and, with a few other University grads, founded the acclaimed Riverside Shakespeare Company in New York.  She later worked as a corporate marketing executive in New York and San Francisco and gave it up to take on documentary filmmaking. She established her own production company in 2003.  In the Name of Their Mothers is her first feature-length documentary.

Mary, the daughter of a Polish WWII orphan, spent seven years making the film, which I’ve written about here and here.  Obviously, her interest in Poland is longstanding, and so is her appreciation for Irena Sendler, who became a personal friend.

This is the first part from an interview with Mary on October 28, in Piggott Hall, after the Stanford screening of her film.

CH:  How did your mother inform your understanding about wartime Poland?

MS: She had survived the war in Warsaw.  Everyone else in her family had been killed. She was rounded up when she was about 14 or 15 and sent to a subcamp of Buchenwald, and that’s where she spent the rest of her adolescence.  After that she was taken in by various convents and refugee centers.

I knew how devastating that experience of the war had been on the people of Warsaw and I knew how hard it was for children.

I was also very much aware of the great fondness she had for these social workers in Warsaw were who were, from the very beginning, organizing help and soup kitchens and waiting on train platforms and trying to bribe German guards who were rounding up, at that time in 1939, blonde, blue-eyed children that they were sending to Germany for Germanization.

They turned out to be the same group of women who later had formed a clandestine network to save Jewish children. I thought the whole notion of the power of this group of women, resisting outwitting the Nazis, was fascinating.  I wanted to know more about it, and I was looking for eyewitnesses and people who had survived that experience.

I came across the story of Irena Sendler, which was beginning to be publicized by the school group in Kansas [The “Life in a Jar” project – ED].  I contacted several people in the United States who helped me to get in touch with her in Poland. Then I moved to Poland for four or five months and tried to earn her trust and get her to be willing to speak on camera.

Q:  What was it like filming Irena Sendler?

It was very hard for her to talk to be filmed. She was embarrassed.  She didn’t feel extraordinarily heroic. She didn’t like to recount her memories of the war, but we eventually convinced her to give us some time on camera, mostly because we used the argument that the more women, especially young women, learned about her story and the story of these other women that were part of her network — basically teenage girls — the more people will be inspired toward that kind of moral courage. It was essential for people like her to talk and to recount what actually happened, because so many of the eyewitnesses are passing and  we can’t ever forget how devastating that experience was for the Jewish people, especially in places like Warsaw.

Children of the Warsaw Ghetto, 1942

CH: She mentioned her father toward the end of the film. Could you tell me a little about …

MS:  Through centuries of being occupied, Poland disappeared from the map until World War I, divided up between the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Russian Empire, and Prussia. What had been Poland’s nobility was impoverished over that 200-year period, but they kept their value system.

Irena Sendler’s father and many of the women who participated in the Polish resistance came from this szlachta class, which is basically the impoverished nobility, who were leftist-leaning during this interwar period.  They were for a free and independent Poland, but they were also for socialist, humanitarian values.

This group was pioneering revolutionary techniques in social work between the end of World War I and the beginning of World War II.  They were very advanced in their thinking about personal empowerment and ways to help people, helping the disenfranchised and fighting for more rights for women.

Her father was a doctor who was treating the poor Jews in the village where they lived. Early on in her memories, Sendler remembered her father telling her how important it was to learn about other cultures and also how important it was to help people who were in trouble.

He developed typhus from treating some of these patients and he died when she was nine years old, but she never forgot his memory.

CH:  And she never forgot what he taught her about medicine.

MS:  Right.

More tomorrow… [Part 2, with a youtube video featuring an interview with Irena Sendler, is here. Part 3 is here. Part 4 is here.]