Posts Tagged ‘Magda Rusinek’

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.

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):