Posts Tagged ‘Lili Pohlmann’

The Holocaust: what was it like for the kids in hiding?

Monday, November 23rd, 2015
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safest-lieA promise is a promise. We don’t usually do “young adult” fiction here at the Book Haven, but in this case I make an exception – a duty as well as a pleasure. Seven years ago, over bronowicka wegetariań„ska and some very good wine and vodka at Pod Baranem in Kraków (I later learned it was one of Czesław Miłosz‘s favorite restaurants in that wondrous city),  I heard the story of Irena Sendler, who had died a few months before in 2008. It was an extraordinary tale told late in the evening by her friend and Holocaust survivor Lili Pohlmann of the city’s Judaica Foundation.

Now the story is well known, but back then it wasn’t. I was skeptical of Lili’s claims of her close friend who had saved thousands of Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto. Why had I never heard of her? I went back to my Kraków apartment and googled, and confirmed Lili’s account – since Sendler was a Polish patriot, the Soviet authorities had had an interest in suppressing the story, which became known only after 1989. I resolved pretty much then and there to do what I could to share the history, as I have done here and here and here and here and here, and a few other places as well. So how could a not cover Angela Cerrito‘s well-researched The Safest Lie when the publisher, New York’s Holiday House, sent it to me?

The fictional story is told from the point of view of one of Sendler’s hidden children, nine-year-old Anna Bauman. When she hears her new, assigned name, Anna Karlowska, she says, “The words are heavy and far away, like a stone thrown so far out into the lake that it is impossible to hear the splash.”

Sendler herself makes two brief appearances in the book under the code name she used, “Jolanta.” Her first when she makes arrangements to rescue Anna from the Warsaw Ghetto. Sendler said that, for each child saved, she needed a team of 25: 10 to smuggle children out, 10 to find families to take the children, and 5 to get false documents.The second encounter occurs when Anna is in hiding at a convent school – Sendler said not a single convent had refused to shelter a child.

In The Safest Lie, the fictional Anna overhears a conversation of an unknown woman with Sister Maria:

As I dust the first windowsill, I hear Sister Maria’s conversation through her open door.

“We heard of your capture. We even received news of your death.”

irena-sendler1

To honor her.

“In these times, one doesn’t know what to believe,” answers a woman. The voice is decisive, but so low. Someone used to talking in whispers. It’s low and rumbly, but strong. I try to slow my breathing and quiet my heart so I can hear properly. I know that voice! Jolanta? My heart drums in my ears. Could it be? 

“Perhaps the news you heard was true. Today I am Mrs. Dabrowska. Tomorrow perhaps another name. We try to be safe, though we know safety isn’t always possible.”

Oh how I wish I could run into Sister Maria’s office. I want to ask Jolanta a million questions. … Outside the door, I hear Sister Maria say, “Fifteen will help a great deal.”

“Tomorrow then,” says Mrs. Dabrowska, who sounds just like Jolanta.

I walk into the office and set my cloth on Sister Maria’s desk. I study the woman. Her hair is not like Jolanta’s, and something is different about the face. Could it really be her? The woman smiles at me. I’ve never seen Jolanta smile. “And how are you today?” She places a hand on my arm.

“Very well, thank you,” I say. The hand doesn’t feel familiar, but the woman’s yes do. Does she know me?

“Anna, please excuse us,” says Sister Maria.

I leave the room and wait at the end of the hall by the statue of Mother Maria. I pray again. Should I speak with her? Should I ask if she’s Jolanta? I wait until the lady leaves Sister Maria’s office. When I see her walking away, I decide it can’t be Jolanta. The woman drags her left leg. It looks like every step causes her pain. Not at all like Jolanta, who took short, speedy steps.

Irena Sendler had been captured, tortured, and sentenced to a firing squad by the Germans in 1943. Although they had broken her feet and legs, she escaped. She lived until April 2008.

Anyway, it’s a gift idea for the coming month. It’s a fast-paced, moving 181 pages. I had trouble putting it down.

The woman the Soviets kept secret: Film on Holocaust heroine Irena Sendler Thursday!

Tuesday, October 26th, 2010
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Some time ago I wrote about Mary Skinner‘s new documentary,  In the Name of Their Mothers, about Irena Sendler and the women of Żegota.

Another opportunity comes at 7 p.m., this Thursday, at the Language Corner.  Followed by a Q&A conducted by yours truly.

I really wouldn’t miss it, if you haven’t seen the film already. Tad Taube, president of the Koret Foundation and founder and advisory board chair of Stanford’s Taube Center for Jewish Studies, offered not only praise, but help, saying the film “should be seen by every Jew in the United States” when the film had a screening earlier this year at San Francisco’s Jewish Community Center.

Irena Sendler, with the women of Żegota, saved 2,500 babies and children from the Warsaw Ghetto (I also wrote about some time ago here).  The film tells you how they did it, and why.  It includes rare footage of Sendler, who died in 2008, interviewed by her friend, the fimmaker Mary Skinner.

I know, I know.   That’s more than twice as many people as Oskar Schindler saved.  So why have you never heard of her?  It’s so easy for those in the U.S. to forget that there was no happy ending after the end of World War II for half of Europe.  Poland was swallowed in the Soviet maw, and Polish patriots were on the hit list — remember Ashes and Diamonds?  Or Katyń, another Andrzej Wajda film.

Some time ago I wrote about the Auschwitz hero and martyr, the Polish priest Maximilian Kolbe.  While at Auschwitz in 2008 (a horrible place to “visit,” I know, but Adam Zagajewski convinced me that my work in Poland would not be complete without this trip), I spoke with one of the researchers there, Piotr Lipiński.  Kolbe had offered his life to save a Polish soldier and father — no one ever made such an offer in the history of the camp.  The place was designed to discourage any vestiges of humanity.

Wished she had done more..

I asked Piotr how they could be absolutely sure no one else had ever made the sacrifice.  He told me the Soviets had tried and tried to find some alternate hero — someone who was not a Polish Catholic priest.  The best they could find after years of efforts was a schoolteacher may have volunteered, though others claimed he had been pushed forward.

Such was life under the U.S.S.R.  The Fall of the Wall in 1989 is bringing many names of heroes to light. Think of Polish Army Captain Witold Pilecki.  The communist regime in Poland censored any mention of his name in the public record.

The comparisons with Schindler are limited.  One has to remember that Poles could be shot on the spot without trial for helping Jews; Schindler was a German industrialist. In any case, Sendler’s friend and my friend, Lili Pohlmann, objects strongly to any comparisons.  Quite right.

But let me make one more:  Despite this post, I’m not a big fan of movies, but I did see Schindler’s List.  I was impressed by the ending, when Schindler desperately wished he could have done more.

Apparently, Irena Sendler, too, used to wake up at night, remembering, wishing, she had done more.  She said it often to her friends.