Posts Tagged ‘Mary Skinner’

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!

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.

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.

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):

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.]

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.