Posts Tagged ‘In the Name of Their Mothers’

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

Sunday, May 1st, 2011
"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

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.

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

Tuesday, October 26th, 2010

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.