Posts Tagged ‘Irena Sendler’

Proust and the limits of ekphrasis

Monday, December 3rd, 2012
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My travels have slowed my progress into Proustitution – but I was arrested by this passage in Swann’s Way, in which Marcel Proust describes the plight of a pregnant servant girl, a verbal journey that takes him all the way to Giottos frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel of Padua.  While most who know the early 14th-century chapel, one of the masterpieces of Western art, comment on its famous Last Judgment, or the panels which narrate events in the lives of the Virgin Mary and Christ, Proust focuses on the comparatively insignificant panels on virtues and vices, which Giotto painted as if they were stone statues, a kind of ekphrasis.

Ekphrasis has its limits, however.  The passage was more insightful when I took the trouble looked up the image to compare it to Proust’s prose.  Here Proust describes the servant girl and the image of Charity:

What was more, she herself, poor girl, fattened by her pregnancy even in her face, even in her cheeks, which descended straight and square, rather resembled, in fact, those strong, mannish virgins, matrons really, in whom the virtues are personified in the Arena.  And I realize now that those Virtues and Vices of Padua resembled her in still another way. Just as the image of this girl was increased by the added symbol she carried before her belly without appearing to understand its meaning, without expressing in her face anything of its beauty and spirit, as a mere heavy burden, in the same way the powerful housewife who is represented at the Arena below the name “Caritas,” and a reproduction of whom hung on the wall of my schoolroom at Combray, embodies this virtue without seeming to suspect it, without any thought of charity seeming ever to have been capable of being expressed by her vulgar, energetic face.  Through a lovely invention of the painter, she is trampling on the treasures of the earth, but absolutely as if she were treading grapes to extract their juice or rather as she would have climbed on some sacks to raise herself up; and she holds her flaming heart out to God, or, to put it more exactly, “hands” it to him, as a cook hands a corkscrew through the vent of her cellar to someone who is asking her for it at the ground-floor window …

There must have been a good deal of reality in those Virtues and Vices of Padua, since they seemed to me as alive as the pregnant servant, and since she herself did not appear to me much less allegorical.  And perhaps this (at least apparent) nonparticipation of a personal soul in the virtue that is acting through her has also, beyond its aesthetic value, a reality that is, if not psychological, at least, as they say, physiognomical. When, later, I had occasion to meet, in the course of my life, in convents for instance, truly saintly embodiments of practical charity, they generally had the cheerful, positive, indifferent, and brusque air of a busy surgeon, the sort of face in which one can read no commiseration, no pity in the presence of human suffering, no fear of offending it, the sort which is the ungentle face, the antithetic and sublime face of true goodness.

Sounds rather like the way her friends have described Polish Holocaust heroine Irena Sendler to me.

Join me at the UNAFF screening of Irena Sendler documentary!

Saturday, October 20th, 2012
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Yayyy for Mary Skinner!  Her film about Irena Sendler, In the Name of Their Mothers, is an “official selection” at this year’s United Nations Association Film Festival (UNAFF).

Sendler is the Polish Holocaust heroine who, with her team from the clandestine organization Żegota, saved about 2,500 children from the Warsaw Ghetto in World War II.  The story has only surfaced in the post-1989 world, since Sendler’s reputation was suppressed by the Communist regime in Poland.

From 6 to 8 p.m. on Tuesday, October 23,  Skinner will host a special “behind the scenes” event at the Mid-Peninsula Media Center, 900 San Antonio Road, Palo Alto, with a photo exhibit of many never-before-seen images from the film.  Humble Moi will be “in conversation” with Mary.  (I’ve interviewed her before here and here and here and here.)  More about the UNAFF event here.  The film will begin at 9:15 p.m. at the nearby Oshman Jewish Community Center – directions here.

Here’s what philanthropist Tad Taube wrote about Sendler in the April 26, 2011, 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.”

Trailer for the film below.  See you there!

The man who volunteered for Auschwitz: the greatest story never told

Sunday, June 10th, 2012
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Some time ago, I discovered the peculiar connection between Czesław Miłosz and the Franciscan priest, Father Maximilian Kolbe – I wrote about it for the Poetry Foundation here.

Kolbe had the distinction of being the only person who ever volunteered to die at Auschwitz.  This claim is not generally made for him, but my sources were good.  I visited a researcher at Auschwitz,  Piotr Lipiński, and he explained that the death camp wasn’t the sort of place that fostered altruism.  More convincingly, he explained that the Communist authorities who assumed power after the war were very eager to find someone else – someone besides a priest, that is – who had made such a terrible deal.

The Communist government was anxious to bury the stories of Polish wartime heroes – it’s one reason, for example, the name of Irena Sendler, the woman who saved 2,500 children from the Warsaw ghetto, did not become known until after 1989.  (I’ve written about her, oh, here and here and here and here and here and here.)  Or the name of Jan Karski, who received a Presidential Medal of Freedom last month.

So here’s another one to add to the list: Captain Witold Pilecki, who had the distinction of being the only known person to smuggle into Auschwitz, so he could report back to the Allies about the conditions there.  They didn’t listen.  They thought he was exaggerating.

Probosz as Pilecki

Since 1989, Poles, too, have been learning about him, thanks to a 2006 movie, The Death of Witold Pilecki, with Marek Probosz portraying the hero.  The movie, with English subtitles, hasn’t had wide circulation.  Your better chance might be a new book:  The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery.  It’s been published by Aquila Polonica in Los Angeles.  That means it’s probably not going to get much mainstream publicity.  (NPR did a 2010 broadcast about him – it’s here.)  This heavily illustrated, 400-page book is the first translation into English of his report.

Auschwitz, of course, was not originally a camp for Jews, but rather P.O.W.s.  Pilecki, who was one of 150,000 Polish prisoners,  was at Auschwitz from September 1940 to April 1943, and would have seen its transition before he escaped.  Rabbi Michael Schudrich, the chief rabbi of Poland, wrote the foreword to the book:  “When God created the human being, God had in mind that we should all be like Captain Witold Pilecki, of blessed memory. May the life of Witold Pilecki inspire us all to do one more good deed, of any kind, each and every day of our lives.”

Norman Davies writes in the introduction:

Also a husband and father of two

“I myself became fully aware of the greatness of Witold Pilecki while conducting research on the Warsaw Rising of 1944.  Here was a man, who almost single-handedly had held up the German panzers on one of Warsaw’s main thoroughfares for a fortnight; using the pseudonym ‘Roman’, he then disappeared into his dugout and continued the struggle until the Rising capitulated over two months later. Only then did I realise that this was the same heroic character, who four years earlier had deliberately arranged to be arrested by the SS and be transported to Auschwitz.  In 1943, having engineered his escape, he wrote the first version of his Report on Auschwitz, which I had read and which had been the first of several attempts to inform the outside world of what was really happening. Pilecki was a Polish officer and Catholic who viewed his fight against his country’s oppression as synonymous with his patriotic and religious duty. If there was an Allied hero who deserved to be remembered and celebrated, this was a person with few peers.”

Like so many others (including Sendler) he was tortured by the Communist authorities. Pilecki was executed at their hands in 1948.  Compared with the Communists, “Auschwitz was easy,” he said after his sentence was pronounced.  His body has never been recovered.

Mary Skinner: A life changed by 9/11

Thursday, August 25th, 2011
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Mary Skinner (right) with Elzbieta Ficowska, one of Sendler's rescued children

Mary Skinner was hunkered down on the West Coast, reconsidering her 20-year career in New York, when she watched her colleagues in Two World Trade Center die on 911.

According to an article in More magazine:

But as the catastrophe unfolded, Skinner’s hesitation disappeared.  “I knew friends were caught on certain floors and didn’t make it,” she says. I felt: I need to be there right now. I’ve got to go back. I had devoted my talent, heart and brain cells to helping somebody make a little more money on currency arbitrage.  In the face of what was going on in the world, I felt like, that’s a sin.”

Two months later, Skinner boarded a plane for New York – without a job or a place to live, and for the first time in her professional life, without a plan.

She found temp office work, reconnected with old friends and took writing classes. She enrolled in a documentary filmmaking class at the New School, wanting to make a film about her Polish-born, Catholic mother, Klotylda, who was orphaned and imprisoned during World War II and cared for by strangers afterwards. Klotylda wouldn’t agree to be her subject. Haunted by her mother’s experiences, Skinner continued with her research, uncovering more stories of children saved by heroic strangers.

I interviewed Mary here and here and here and here. She eventually went to make a movie about Holocaust heroine Irena Sendler, the PBS film In the Name of Their Mothers. The article gets it wrong: Sendler didn’t save hundreds of children; she saved thousands.

Skinner’s story has a happy ending:

The film’s reception was “beyond anything I could have imagined,” Skinner says. “But I didn’t feel elated. I was frayed, out of money and scared to death.” In the US, the film was rejected from film festival competitions (a DVD release in Poland broke conventional festival rules), but won multiple European prizes.  Skinner started showing her film at churches, schools and libraries. The philanthropist Tad Taube, a major PBS donor, happened to attend one of the screenings and was so moved that he arranged for Skinner to meet with the head of programming at the local PBS affiliate. That day, Skinner came with a PowerPoint presentation, prepared to make the most important pitch of her life, but as she sat down with the station chief at a polished table surrounded by staffers, he said, “This is a powerful film.  We want to ask you if you will allow us to take it national.” In the Name of Their Mothers had its U.S. debut on Sunday May 1, 2011, Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Now that’s a story we tell here.

Poet Fatima Frutos honors her grandmother and Irena Sendler with her prize

Monday, May 30th, 2011
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Congratulations, Fatima (Photo: Martin Roberts)

“She awoke without rancor thanks to poetry. She knew how to cuddle me with verse-like hands and swaddle me with stanzas by great writers.”

That’s what award-winning poet Fatima Frutos said, speaking of her grandmother, who brought her up while reciting poems she had learned by heart, because she could neither read nor write.  The Jerusalem Post has an article about here; the Reuters article is here.  Frutos beat more than 200 international poets to win the 2011 Kutxa Ciudad de Irun Poetry Prize, Spain’s second biggest poetry prize.

The award honors her  collection, Andromeda Encadenada (Andromeda Enchained), commemorating “unsung heroines” including Irena Sendler, who saved 2,500 Jewish children by smuggling them out of the Warsaw Ghetto.  Sendler is hardly unsung – I’ve written about her here and here and here and oh so many other places, like the History News Network here.

“The visibility of such women needs to be vindicated, the ones who have been deemed secondary, who have had no recognition but deserve that and so much more,” Frutos said.

“I start out with the anecdotes and build on them with lyricism and poetry, to vindicate them verse by verse,” she said. “It’s not just about giving visibility to invisible women, but also to 20th-Century geniuses whose work has yet to shake up 21st-century consciences.”

The volume also honors eminent Italian 17th-Century painter Artemisia Gentileschi and Spanish 19th-Century writer Carolina Coronado, who both struggled to achieve recognition in fields then dominated by men.  It also celebrates Carl von Weizsaecker, a 20th-Century nuclear physicist who later became a philosopher, German 18th-century mystical writer Novalis, and 19th-century lyrical poet (and another German) Friedrich Hölderlin.  (Both Reuters and the Jerusalem Post manage to misspell Hölderlin … but then, they also misidentify Novalis as a philosopher.)

Congratulations, Irena.

But her main inspiration as a writer has been Miguel Hernández, known as the “people’s poet,” fought Francisco Franco’s troops during the Spanish Civil War and was later sentenced to death for his poetry. The sentence was commuted to a long prison term, but Hernández died in prison at the age of 31 in 1942 .

“Hernandez has inoculated us with the blessed poison of poetry so that we may grow without rancour, but with the strength to vindicate social justice,” said Frutos, who works as a local government equality officer.  Her grandmother recited Hernandez’s poems to her from childhood.

In an awards ceremony on May 28, Frutos dedicated her price to her grandmother.  “I am a poet because of her. It needs to be said that an illiterate woman who lived in poverty also knew how to raise an international award-winning poet.”

Life in wartime Warsaw … not quite what you thought

Saturday, May 21st, 2011
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The apple tree that marked the spot

Very little of prewar Warsaw is left – 85 percent of the city was destroyed by the Nazis.  But the street where Jadwiga Piotrowska (I wrote about her here) and her family ran a clandestine operation to hide Jewish children remained standing after the war – though interiors were burned and some floors destroyed, much remained intact.  The bullet holes in the walls have been filled, and the elegant flat with parquet floors retains its prewar charm.  Even the apple tree where Irena Sendler and her cohort, Ms. Piotrowska, buried the famous jar linking the whereabouts and real names of the rescued Jewish children continues to grow to this day.

Jadwiga Piotrowska’s daughter, Hana Rechowicz, remembers playing with the Jewish children in their house – one youth stayed for four years.  Irena Sendler?  She remembers her and her cohorts being bubbly and vivacious, not tense and paralyzed with fear as they are, for example, in Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler.  After all, said Hana, life went on.  Six  years was a long time.

The picture she described of a life in Żegota, the Polish underground operation to save the Jews, was not quite what many may imagine.

One part of Warsaw that wasn't completely demolished

Far from being a clandestine operation, she said, everyone knew the multi-generational household was hiding Jews.  She named a number of households in their immediate neighborhood were doing exactly the same.

When she says everyone, she means everyone.  The household had servants, and they knew.  Communication in the pre-phone tapping days meant everyone who overheard phone calls knew.  Weren’t informants around?  There really weren’t that many, she insisted, implying a good deal of solidarity among the Poles of goodwill.

Czesław Miłosz, in an essay I have been reading in Proud to Be A Mammal, recalled the war being a time of parties with plenty of vodka – German-imposed curfews meant there was a regular ritual of unexpected visitors overnight, which made not only for wartime trauma and tension – but also, politically incorrect as it may be to say so, sometimes a lot of fun.  In fact, Hana remembered Miłosz as a regular visitor to their household – she even found a letter from him.

The surviving gateway to notorious Pawiak

Hana recalled the war as being a time of family closeness, due to the same curfews and wartime restrictions – a closeness that’s been lost in the postwar years.

She hastened to add that tension and terror were part of their lives, too.  The children they harbored were traumatized, in transit from household to household as they were prepared for life in disguise.  She recalled the Jewish child who screamed at them  “Who are you people?  I want to be home with my mother and father and grandparents!  I hate you.”  But six years is a long time to be afraid and tense, she emphasized, and they were young and full of life.

Unreal

Of course, all that ended when Warsaw was razed to the ground in 1944.

Not much is intact, but something of a museum has been made of what’s left of Pawiak Prison, where Sendler was tortured for several months before an escape on her way to execution. Filmmaker  Leszek Cicirko took me for a quick tour before we visited Hana.

Outside the prison-museum is a “tree” where the names of the dead have been posted.

Here’s more of what I meant in my previous post:  The tree at left is not a real tree.  It’s a recreation of a dead tree.  People have real emotions about a replica of a dead tree.  Odd.

Korczak in Warsaw: “I do not know why our hearts did not break.”

Friday, May 20th, 2011
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From Andrzej Wajda’s 1990 movie

Among my first errands in Warsaw was delivering several DVDs of Mary Skinner’s In the Name of Their Mothers to Warsaw filmmaker Leszek Cicirko, who worked with Mary in Poland, and Hana Rechowicz.  She is the daughter of Sendler’s co-worker,  Jadwiga Piotrowska – I wrote about her here.

On the train from Kraków to Warsaw, I finally got back to Anna Mieszkowska‘s  Irena Sendler: Mother of the Children of the Holocaust.  It’s a problematic book, crying out for a good editor and better organization, but it’s all we’ve got in English or Polish on the woman who saved 2,500 Jewish children in the Warsaw Ghetto from certain death.  It’s filled with long excerpts from Sendler’s own writings, which redeems its many flaws.

I reached the point in the book where Sendler describes the Polish Jewish pediatrician and children’s author, Janusz Korczak, who had established a Jewish orphanage along the lines of his educational theories.  (Culture.pl, an online magazine promoting Polish culture, has a biographical article here.) Sendler had of course worked worked with the doctor in the Ghetto, after the orphanage was moved inside its walls in 1940. Korczak refused many offers to be smuggled out of the Ghetto – he would not abandon the children in his care. And so he died with them.  On August 5, 1942, Korczak joined nearly 200 children and orphanage staff members were rounded up for deportation to Treblinka, where they were all put to death.

In Sendler’s words:

“He walked at the head of this tragic procession.  He held the younger child in his arm and with his other hand he was leading another infant. That’s how various people have recorded it in their memoirs, whereas others record it differently, but this doesn’t mean anyone has made a mistake.  One has only to remember that the route from the orphanage to the Umschlagplatz was long. It lasted four hours. I saw them when they were turning from Żelezna Street into Leszno Street.”

Curiously enough, Korczak was the subject of a recent email from Helen Pinkerton, who had seen my posts on Mary Skinner’s PBS film, which reminded her of Edgar Bowers‘ poem, “In Defense of Poetry,” in his Collected Poems. The poem ends:

An old light shining new within a world
Confusing and confused, although their teachers
Deny the worth of writing – my latest colleagues,
Who hope to find a letter in the mail,
Are happy if their children study Shakespeare
At Harvard, Penn or Yale, write articles
To prove all writing writers’ self-deception,
Drive Camrys, drink good wines, play Shostakovich
Or TV news before they go to bed,
And when their sleeping or their waking dream
Is fearful, think it merely cinema,
Trite spectacle that later will amuse.
But when my mind remembers, unamused
It pictures Korczak going with his children
Through Warsaw to the too substantial train.”

Curiously, too, this poem was also the subject of a recent post by Patrick Kurp in Anecdotal Evidence, who compared its quiet power to Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River, where “Every frame is too emphatic, too loud, too cartoonish, too insistently certain of its own bravery in the face of evil.”

Andrzej Wajda also made a movie, Korczak – so Korczak’s story has entered the world of art.

But I’m always a little uncomfortable when suffering of this magnitude gets turned into a poem or painting or even movie – it’s too easy to appropriate the suffering of others to give massiveness to one’s ideas, and to subtly enhance oneself.  Regardless of the artistry of the result, the process is morally questionable.  I know Czesław Miłosz felt much the same way about his own “Campo dei Fiori.”  As I noted in an article a few years ago, “The Doubter and the Saint“:

“Later, in Conversations with Czesław Miłosz, the poet called it an ‘immoral’ and dishonest poem, ‘because it was written from the point of view of an observer about people who were dying.’ It was too easy, he seemed to be saying: the poet observes an atrocity, writes a poem in protest, and is pleased at having written a beautiful poem; conscience slackens.”

The real Korczak

Moreover, it’s a strange process by which we begin to prefer the glossiness of the artistic version – in fact, I just proved it.  While looking for a photo, I quickly latched onto Wajda’s movie image of Korczak, which was much preferable to the real doctor at right, who wasn’t an actor and didn’t have a cameraman.

Sendler, who was on site for the unspeakable event, recalls that Korczak had, a few weeks before, directed the children to perform Rabindranath Tagore’s play,   Post Office,  which describes how a child striving to escape his sickroom confines, ultimately dies, with death seen as, in Tagore’s words, “spiritual freedom” from “the world of hoarded wealth and certified creeds.”

But I think Sendler’s artless words are simplest and best when describing the atrocity:

“I was at the orphanage to see that play. And then, when on August 6, 1942, I saw that tragic parade in the street, those innocent children walking obediently in the procession of death and listening to the doctor’s optimistic words, I do not know why for me and for all the other eyewitnesses our hearts did not break.”

“But our hearts remained intact, and what also remained were thoughts that to this day cannot be understood by any normal person.”

On heroes: Irena Sendler, Phil Zimbardo, Kendall Fielder

Sunday, May 8th, 2011
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I arrived in Kraków yesterday – or perhaps today, I’m not smart enough to untangle the time differences.  I spent a good part of the afternoon reacquainting myself with old haunts and half-familiar streets. The city is awash with images of its native son, John Paul II, who was beatified on May 1. Photographs are in windows, banners on the streets, and large biographical displays mark two sites I’ve passed so far.

May 1 was also the national screening of PBS’s In the Name of Their Mothers, about Irena Sendler and the women of Żegota, who saved 2,500 Jewish children from certain death during the Holocaust. I’ve written about it here and here and here and here.  Alas, I doubt the film got much attention; it unexpectedly vied with President Obama’s announcement of the killing of Osama bin Laden. I strongly suspect the latter event got the upper hand. But May 1 is significant for other reasons.

My lighter airplane reading was Irena Sendler: Mother of the Children of the Holocaust. I didn’t hold out much hope for this modest, yet reasonably expensive ($40) book with the clumsy title – but the newly translated biography-of-sorts by Anna Mieszkowska is so far the only work that exists in English. Fortunately, the book so far has proven much better than my subdued expectations. For one thing, a good deal of it is written by Sendler herself, from letters, memoirs, and recollections she left behind.

A spider or a Rorschach test?

So what else is May 1? It is also marks the celebration of Divine Mercy this year – a custom instituted by the late pope, who, in another mysterious link, died on the eve of the Polish visionary whose writings caused the celebration.

The event is linked with Sendler, too.  From Mieszkowska’s book:  

A period of mass executions began at Pawiak Prison. Every morning the cell doors opened, and those called out never returned. “I once found a small, damaged picture with the words ‘Jesus, I trust in You!’ I hid it, and had it with me all the time.”

The footnote to this text says: “This picture, which she described as the most valuable object in her life, Irena posted in a letter (describing its history but not leaving a return address) to Pope John Paul II during his first visit to Poland.”

Skinner: Kind of a hero herself

Somewhere I heard the story that the pope returned it to her later, and she gave it back to him, and it’s in a museum somewhere. I can’t remember.

Mary Skinner, the filmmaker behind In the Name of Their Mothers (and kind of a hero herself) told me the image was a signal the women of Żegota sent to each other and left for each other – sometimes just to buck themselves up.

Turning away from the dark side

In any case, I keep the image in my wallet, reminding myself of their example, and not to be such a sissy. When a member of the Polish literati saw it, he acted as if I had shown him a spider. Well he asked.

All this links with a current Science article about Phil Zimbardo’s work on heroes – that’s right, Zimbardo of the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment. His latest work explores the basic idea that “anyone can be a hero,” he said.

At age 78, he has reinvented himself as a social entrepreneur, leading a new project that will attempt to turn the Stanford Prison Experiment and other studies of the dark side of the human psyche into a force for good. Last year, Zimbardo founded the Heroic Imagination Project … “Our ambition is to seed the world with heroes,” Zimbardo says.

A different kind of military hero

He’s putting his money where his mouth is:

“This is my new mission in life,” he says. He chipped in $30,000 of his own money to start the project and has since raised nearly $250,000 more from other donors. He’s considering auctioning off some of his art and wine collections. “I grew up in abject poverty in the South Bronx,” Zimbardo says. Now that he has nice things, he says he’s willing to give them up if that’s what it takes. Zimbardo seems to have thrown himself wholeheartedly into the challenges of his grand new experiment – and the shot at redemption. “It’s rescued my career from being Dr. Evil to being Dr. Good,” he says.

Some other good stuff he’s done is here.

At one point, Phil was asking for examples of heroes. I suggested Irena Sendler, of course. I also suggested someone I’m proud to consider a relation: my grandfather-in-law Brigadier General Kendall Fielder, who resisted the orders for the confinement of Japanese Americans in Hawaii.  (He was also the highest ranking officer exonerated after Pearl Harbor.)

G'night from Kraków and Wawel

Greg Robinson, who has written about him in two of his books about the Japanese internment, explained heroism this way:  “You never know who will have a moment of grace, and under what circumstances.”

Ah, I hear Wawel Cathedral tolling midnight …  in the which reminds me I’m in Kraków…

Irena Sendler’s story, “In the Name of Their Mothers” on PBS tonight! Interview with filmmaker Mary Skinner, Part 4

Sunday, May 1st, 2011
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"Has he not read his Bakhtin? Has he not read, well, anything?" (Photo: L.A. Cicero"

The young Sendler

Finalement!  The final installment of my interview with California filmmaker Mary Skinner, the mastermind behind In the Name of Their Mothers, which airs tonight on PBS (10 p.m. on KQED for Bay Area viewers – and the film shows tomorrow in Boston).  The occasion is a perfect one: today, May 1st, is Holocaust Remembrance Day.

In the Name of Their Mothers is 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. (Check local times here, and you can buy the DVD here.)

I’ve written about Irena Sendler before, here and here.

Skinner in Warsaw

This interview took place following a Stanford screening of the film on October 28, 2010.  Part 1, with a trailer for the film, is here.  Part 2, with a youtube video featuring an interview with Irena Sendler, is here. Part 3 is here.

For Part 4, the questions are all from the audience:

Q: From the start of this journey to the end of the film, what were the surprises for you?

Man of Żegota: Władysław Bartoszewski

MS: Oh, that’s an interesting question. I started out thinking, “This is going to be a one-year project. One woman managed to smuggle 2,500 babies out of the ghetto, and I’m going to get that interview and it’s over.”

The shocking thing was how elaborate and how expansive this whole network of women was, and how complex. The matter of saving a child’s life was not so much getting them out of the Ghetto. The children could walk out of the Ghetto. It was it was feeding them and protecting them from the Germans and from blackmailers and getting the right paperwork for them. It was the whole bureaucratic nightmare that they had in a German-run social services department where they had to keep on reporting to the Germans. They also had to report what they were up to back to the government-in-exile.

Woman of Żegota: Magda Rusinek

So there was all this paperwork. Every time I was writing another proposal to try to raise money for this film I was thinking, Irena Sendler did it, I can do it.

That was a big part of it. The paperwork. It was all this doctoring and foraging and sending the papers and reporting and fighting to get more stipends and then hiding and then tricking this guy into telling the Germans. They had a lot of double-booking going on, and they all had to keep the code. The Germans had no idea, absolutely no idea what they were doing.

Q: There was a film made a few years back, The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler.

MS: I applaud the makers of that film for casting someone like Anna Paquin, who drew an audience to the film. I thought that the betrayal of the Ghetto was very good, very realistic, and the conflicts of this young social worker trying to convince mothers to part with their children. Obviously, I had gotten deeper into the story and so I knew that there were more elements to it that weren’t depicted in film, but I really applaud that film. I thought was it was quite authentic for a Hallmark movie, and I was really glad that 11 million watched it.

Hero in hiding: Adolf Berman

MS: I found it fascinating the way these women worked together, but there were some wonderful men who were part of this underground counsel to aid the Jews – people like Władysław Bartoszewski. Once again, Polish and Jewish resistance workers who were collaborating – people like Adolf Berman, who was who was living in hiding in Warsaw. He was responsible for identifying a lot of the parents who were willing to let their children go and putting them in touch with the network that could help them. There were some very brave, noble men that were part of this team as well.

Q: It’s still very hard to understand the brutality of the S.S. Where does it come from? Is it in some particular DNA strand?

MS: It’s not like Germans marched into Warsaw and said, “We’re here to annihilate the Jews.”

The first thing they did is they got rid of all the leadership in Warsaw and they said, “You know, these people are all our enemies. The mayor of Warsaw, the leadership within Warsaw, they were their enemies. So the people say, “Well, that’s war. Right.”

Magda honored by Yad Vashem ... and the boy she saved

Next, they start to say, “You know, the Jews have always wanted to govern themselves. We’re going to do them a favor. We’re going to let them all live in one place together and they can make their own rules. You just keep us apprised.” So the first couple of months of the Ghetto’s existence, they slowly moved people into one section of the city. Then they established the Jewish Council and the Jewish police force – they’re doing deals with the leadership of this group.

Jewish leaders were killed in early 1939 pogroms as well. They got rid of the Jewish leadership of the city. Some of them fled to the Soviet Union. So then, the public figured, “Well, they told us what they’re doing is they’re letting people be self-governing. It’s a separatist program. It’s apartheid. I guess we know and understand.”

Anna Paquin as Irena Sendler

Then the next thing we hear is that the people in the Ghetto are sick, and we’re going to do you a favor and not let you go into that area, because we don’t want you getting typhus. So then the population can’t see what’s happening behind the wall. And then you have the new external circumstances of less and less food as the German Army ran out of food.

So you ask, how could a Weimar soldier do this? Well, the Weimar soldier now has lost his buddies, he’s hungry, he’s been told these people are infested with typhus, and this is the only practical solution to this situation.

So then it starts to feel little bit like some contemporary things I’ve read about.

There were different types of people in the German army. There were people who were already brutal maniacs that were recruited for the S.S. and further trained to be brutal maniacs. Then there were simple German soldiers.

The way that Germans conducted themselves in Warsaw was they didn’t go into the Ghetto. For a long time, they ordered him Ukrainian conscripts to do a lot of the dirty work, they ordered Jewish police to do things, in exchange for supposedly … Everybody had to have a job, a livelihood. They told the people they deported, “We’re not deporting you, we’re giving you a loaf of bread and some margarine and jam and you’re going to a nice place to work, and you’re getting out of his ugly city.”

So even if the German soldiers, the simple Weimar soldiers, thought that that’s what was going on. You see how it gets more and more desperate.

It starts at the moment at which you objectify a human being. Which is to say, “That human being has no economic value and that human being does.” Then you’re in trouble. It proceeds from there. But it’s not like it started on Day One.

There were different kinds of German soldiers. And there were even some who helped Irena Sendler.

You can hear the entire October 28 interview with Mary Skinner – complete with slamming doors and the chiming of Stanford’s Bell Tower – here.

Irena Sendler’s story, “In the Name of Their Mothers” on PBS May 1: Interview with filmmaker Mary Skinner, Part 3

Saturday, April 30th, 2011
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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. (Check local times here, and you can buy the DVD here.)

I’ve written about Irena Sendler before, here and here.

This is the third part of a 4-part interview, which took place following a Stanford screening of the film on October 28, 2010.  Part 1, with a trailer for the film, is here.  Part 2, with a youtube video featuring an interview with Irena Sendler, is here.

Incidentally, there’s an article here this week in JWeekly, “Modesty is the M.O. for Polish heroine Irena Sendler.” An excerpt from Sendler herself:

“I could not have achieved anything were it not for that group of women I trusted who were with me in the ghetto every day and who transformed their homes into care centers for the children,” she declared. “These were exceptionally brave and noble people.”

She continued, “As for me, it was simple. I remember what my father had taught me. ‘When someone is drowning, give him your hand.’ And I simply tried to extend my hand to the Jewish people.”

CH: Why did people in the Polish resistance keep quiet about their work after the war?

The Allies basically ceded Poland to Stalin. It was his war booty in exchange for having given up 30 million Russian lives to overthrow Hitler. When Stalin took over, he installed a puppet government. People who had been participating in the Polish resistance were perceived to be enemies of the state because they were for a free and independent Poland.

Sendler's beloved Warsaw – a carefully reconstructed city

Most of the leaders of the Polish resistance were caught tortured and executed in these mock trials.  Many others were suspected of being friends with people in the resistance or part of the resistance or knowledgeable in any way or having socialized with somebody in the resistance. They could be summoned in and interrogated and their lives could be made miserable. People like Magda Rusinek – her father had been a minister in the interwar government.

It wasn’t until 1989, really, that the stories really started coming out.

CH: Is this is part of why the Irena Sendler was reluctant to speak with you? She’d been silent for so long.

MS: Definitely. After several hundred years of occupation and not being allowed to speak Polish, the Polish people had become very good at running underground universities and doing clandestine work and using codenames and keeping each other’s secrets.

Hidden Jewish children at a Polish covent, 1943 (Photo: 2B Productions

Many of these women said, “Oh, we knew this stuff from our grandmothers,” because their grandmothers had been using these techniques against the Russians before 1918, so they all knew how to do messages and swallow pieces of paper and hide things behind their ears. Or how to do secret meetings and how to tip each other off – if you’re being watched, tip the flowerpot over so that everyone else in the resistance knows, “don’t go near that house, it’s been burned.” All these techniques they had learned from their parents, from their mothers. They were using them as part of this network against the Nazis and they all used codenames.

One said, “We didn’t know, and we didn’t want to know what each others’ real name was, where each other lived, who each other’s parents were, what each other’s profession was before the war.”

This kind of code didn’t just go away after the war ended, because then they were experiencing another totalitarian regime, the Soviet one, and so people who were just good eggs like Sendler just kept trying to do social work and not get anybody in trouble.

That’s how she spent the rest of her life. So to go on TV and talk about real children and real names and tell real stories is really difficult for her – and difficult for anyone who had done this work.

Question from the audience: “I’m going to assume that most of the parents didn’t survive. What happened to the children who were being protected in these homes and orphanages after the war?”

MS: Most of the children’s biological parents did not survive, true. The Jewish committee in Warsaw was run, in the months and years immediately following the war, by Adolf Berman, who had been Irena Sendler’s colleague. He had been responsible for gathering up all of this information, not only for children, but for all Jews living in Poland.

Pawiak Prison, where Sendler was tortured

They were receiving quite a bit of humanitarian aid at that point, because people were starting to find out what actually happened to these people. Sendler and Jadwiga Piotrowska turned a lot of their information over to Adolf Berman and then he was responsible for trying to figure out ways for all remaining Jewish children in Poland to be identified and to be reunited with their families of origin, if possible, and if not possible, to be sent to Israel.

CH: One question I had from the film: She was talking about the children who didn’t speak a word of Polish, children who only spoke Yiddish. How on earth they hide the children who couldn’t speak Polish?

MS: The purpose of the safehouses was to spend a little bit of time with them before they were moved to the next place. One of Hanna’s jobs was to sit with the children and to sing Yiddish songs with them, and gradually to teach them a few words of Polish. The purpose of these emergency care centers – and it was part of this whole social work system that they had evolved before the war – was to calm the children down and to start to teach them aenough words of Polish so that they could say the right thing if they were interrogated by a German soldier.