Posts Tagged ‘Mary Skinner’

Warsaw at war, and a message of peace: “So this German takes off all his clothes…”

Thursday, August 1st, 2019

Sendler at the time of her interviews with Skinner. She died in 2008.

Today is the 75th anniversary of the beginning of the Warsaw Uprising in 1944. If you want to see Mikołaj Kaczmarek’s remarkable new “colorizing” of photos from the year-long Polish struggle that resulted in the defeat and destruction of Poland’s capital, go here

‘I was in shock – the past just came right out at me.” (Photo Mikołaj Kaczmarek)

According to Kaczmarek, “The first photo I tried was the girl next to a grave. When I finished, I was in shock – the past just came right out at me.” 

“They lived in a time of apocalypse and whether they wanted to or not they had to fight and they often died,” he said. “The colorization made me realize that they were people just like us, they just happened to live at that time.”

Meanwhile, we haven’t written for some time about Mary Skinner, the filmmaker who made In the Name of Their Mothersabout Holocaust heroine Irena Sendler‘s efforts that saved 2,500 children from the Warsaw Ghetto (see here and here and here and here). Below, an excerpt from Skinner’s interviews with Sendler in Warsaw, 2004. (Sendler died at 98 in 2008), where she describes living through the Warsaw Uprising:

“The Warsaw Uprising is in progress. I am in this Red Cross hospital but, in fact, it is a Home Army hospital. There are about a hundred patients. This is the end of August, and we have nothing to eat. One of the patients is a servant from a landowner’s family. She tells the hospital director that in the house opposite – which is destroyed, but the basement is intact – her employers left behind an entire basement full of food. Hams and sausages, everything. So we walk into this basement. And we’re loading sacks full of all this food – and in walks a German. He was startled to see us and we were alarmed to see him. His first reaction was to jab my leg with his bayonet. I have a scar on my leg to this day.

So he was startled. We were, too. He asks us what are we doing here and we tell him in our broken German that we came to pick up the food. He stood there, and he saw us behaving in a normal way. He tells us that he is in search of some civilian clothing. “I‘ve had enough of this killing. It has been five years now and I just want to get out of this and I’m looking for some civilian clothing.” So the servant says that her employers, before they left, had packed a suitcase full of good clothes. “So get out of your uniform and we’ll have you dressed.” So this German takes his clothes off and we dress him from head to toe in a very elegant suit and we tell him, “Just run away and stop all this killing and don’t kill anymore.” He said, “I’ve been killing for five or six years now. I have a wife and children and the war is almost over. I’ve had enough.” So we said, “Just run away and quit killing.”

And so he did.

Join me at the UNAFF screening of Irena Sendler documentary!

Saturday, October 20th, 2012

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

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

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.  (, 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

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
"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.