Archive for April 29th, 2011

Irena Sendler, “The Female Oskar Schindler”: Interview with filmmaker Mary Skinner, Part 2

Friday, April 29th, 2011
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Safety eluded her even after the war. Here in 2005.

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. (I’ve written about here and here.)

Here’s what philanthropist Tad Taube wrote about Sendler in the April 26 Los Angeles Jewish Journal:

“Sendler was a dedicated social worker before the war, and her wartime activities on behalf of the Jews were a logical extension of her early commitment to do what she felt was just. … Denounced to the Gestapo, arrested and tortured, Sendler was able to escape, only to be hunted down as a “dangerous communist” by extreme-right elements in the Polish underground.

“Safety eluded her even after the war, when she was arrested by the communist authorities for having been active in the general Polish underground rather than the communist one. Again imprisoned and tortured — she suffered a miscarriage — Sendler was eventually freed from prison but became a ‘nonperson’ in the eyes of the communist state. Yad Vashem remembered her, awarding her a listing in 1965, but she was otherwise surrounded by official silence, even after the communist government fell. …

"We were not alone."

“Midrash teaches that the children of Abraham, fleeing Egypt, were joined by other slaves, who wanted their freedom no less desperately. Even then, we were not alone. And throughout the ages, thanks to those whose love of freedom and their fellow human beings was more powerful than the shackles of prejudice and fear, we never really were. Nor shall we ever be.”

Yesterday, we published Part 1 of this interview, which took place on October 28 after the Stanford screening of the film. Here is Part 2.

CH:  Irena had many reservations about being filmed.  Your film focuses on the women of Żegota, did that perspective help gain her trust?

MS:   Yes.  She did want people outside Poland to know more about the Council to Aid the Jews, an underground organization that was comprised of Poles and Jews. It was funded by the government-in-exile.  It was the only organization of its kind.

Żegota made a dent in the numbers of people who were murdered in Poland. You might say, “Well, this clandestine network that saved a few thousand lives obviously could have done much more,” but this group of people was fighting from the very beginning to bring global awareness of what was happening.  They were sending out secret messages. They were trying to get the truth published in worldwide newspapers. They had spies who were smuggling into the Ghetto and Auschwitz to report on what was going on. In 1941 and 1942, their stories were just not believed.

But Żegota did get quite a bit of money from the formal government-in-exile that was parachuted into Poland.  They distributed it to people who were escaping these deportations. They were doing everything they possibly could to keep them alive.

It was difficult to keep moving people and hiding people. The situation in Poland was very extreme. It was unlike any other country in occupied Europe.  Even giving a glass of water to a Jewish person meant you could shot on the spot. So they really had to work very closely together.  They had to keep secrets, they had to use codenames, and they needed significant resources to try to save these people’s lives. Keeping 2,500 children alive for several years during the war was pretty phenomenal.

Reunited: William Donat had thought Magda was just a babysitter

CH:  And not one of Irena Sendler’s children was lost.

MS:  Right. At least 2,500 children were helped by the Żegota network.  We know this because the group of women who participated in the organization made an official report to a person who was writing a book about the organization, and they put together all of their numbers – the numbers they knew were protected in convents, the number of foundlings, orphan children who were protected in one orphanage in Warsaw, and the number who were with adoptive families.  About 1,500 who were with adoptive families.

CH:  How did you find these “hidden children” for this film?

MS:  These children were really deeply traumatized – like my mother.  I grew up with it, and I was sensitive to how difficult it was for them to recount things.  I interviewed many more of these hidden children that were willing to talk on camera.

CH:  There must be many children who don’t know Sendler saved them.

MS:  They often didn’t know that their caretakers were part of a resistance operation. They just thought of them as babysitters or nannies.

William Donat – the man you saw in the film who was reunited with the teenage caretaker, Magda Rusinek – always thought of Magda as his best babysitter. She was the girl who used to tell him about the stars. He didn’t know that she was working in the Underground and that she was doing counterespionage and that she had codename.  He had several caretakers, they were all part of this underground network.

CH:  The question you always get asked:  What became of the bottle with the names in it?

MS:  Okay, so we all would love for that to be true, that there was one bottle and had 2,500 names, and I’m sorry to tell you it just didn’t happen way.

Jadwiga Piotrowska, who you saw toward the end of her life in the film, was Irena’s coworker.  She was the one who was burying the identities of the children that she was protecting and their true Jewish names in little slips of paper in little soda bottles in her backyard under her apple tree.

They may have been hiding some information these bottles, but it would have been way too dangerous to have one master list of all these names.  Sendler had in her head a sense of who every child was, and who was protecting every child, and where, because she was the head of this children’s division within this underground operation. She needed to know that, because the hidden people had to get calls from the social workers, they had to get stipends, and they had to be checked to make sure everything was okay.  If one of them was in trouble, the rest of the organization had to help them.  So Sendler sort of had this sense in her head, but it was not in one bottle anywhere and it was not on one list.

Below, a somewhat rough youtube video on Irena Sendler and Żegota (including an interview of Sendler):