Posts Tagged ‘Poland’

“In the Name of Their Mothers”

Wednesday, May 5th, 2010

Irena Sendler

Next Wednesday marks the second anniversary of the death of Irena Sendler.  For most people that will mean little, as the name is little known outside Poland.

But for several hundred people at San Francisco’s Jewish Community Center on California Street, it will mean a lot more than it did a few days ago — thanks to last night’s screening of Mary Skinner’s brand new film, In the Name of Their Mothers.

The documentary describes the efforts of the young Polish social worker who, with her team of workers, saved 2,500 Jewish children in the Warsaw Ghetto from almost certain death in Treblinka.  Sendler’s life was the subject of a film on CBS last year, starring Anna Paquin (I wrote about it here after attending the Hollywood premiere), but Skinner has focused more broadly on the women of Żegota, the highly organized team of women who worked together to save lives, as well as the mothers and nuns who sheltered the children, at terrifying peril to themselves.

The film, six years in the making, uses interviews with Sendler, the children she saved (now elderly), and the women who opposed the Nazis.  Skinner also wove her tale with hitherto-unseen, or at least little-seen, archival footage of the Nazis in Poland, and of the Ghetto (some of it taken by Julien Hequembourg Bryan).  I attended the film with Russian filmmaker Helga Landauer, whose own film of Anna Akhmatova (I wrote about it here) made her appreciate the skill of crafting a film from ancient material, and told some stories about the endlessness of film editing — and she had some unusual insights to offer about the squelching of Sendler by the Soviets during the Communist years.  (She also persuaded me to watch A Film About Anna Akhmatova again — apparently I missed an early reference in the film to Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas.)

Skinner’s own mother was one of the Polish Catholics taken to a concentration camp, as a young girl barely in her teens.  She had been caught smuggling food.  Her father had been killed, her mother was dying, and her brother and sister had already been taken away.  She was the only one in the family to survive the war.  Years later, she told her American daughter of the “angels of mercy” in Warsaw who rescued the children who had were homeless, destitute, and orphaned by the war.  Skinner said, in her remarks after the film, that she was made aware of “how many wounded children there are in the world.”

She said she made the film “on behalf of all the mothers who extended themselves on behalf of children.”

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.  It’s a memorial of man-gone-crazy, a memorial of courageousness,” and he pledged then and there to “distribute it on a very very broad basis.”

Under the circumstances, that could be quite an offer.  In Poland, the 50,000 DVDs of the movie were snapped up almost instantly.


Children of the Warsaw Ghetto

The forests of Katyń

Monday, April 12th, 2010

Germans discover 4,500 Polish officers buried in mass graves, April 1943

The airplane crash that killed Poland’s President Lech Kaczyński and first lady Maria Kaczyńska — along with Poland’s deputy foreign minister and a dozen members of parliament, the chiefs of the army and the navy, church leaders, the president of the national bank, and others — dominated the news over the weekend (my interview with European historian Norman Naimark here).  The plane was en route to a commemoration for the victims of Katyń.

For many in the West, it was the first time they had heard of the forests that hid the mass graves following the 1940 Soviet massacre of about 22,000 people.  Most press accounts describe it as a massacre of Polish officers, but the list of the murdered included doctors, professors, lawmakers, police officers, public servants, and others in the intelligentsia — the kind of people Poland needed to function as a nation.

The Soviets denied the massacre for decades, blaming the Nazis for the atrocity.  And the Soviets controlled Poland — hence, it was not possible to speak openly about Katyń.  Any mention of the atrocity was dangerous; government censorship suppressed all references to the massacre.

herbertAs I wrote elsewhere: ‘Imagine, for a moment, an American equivalent: a world where we were not allowed to speak of 9/11 and could not remember the victims in any public way. A world, moreover, in which our nation was ruled by the terrorists who did the killing. The comparison misses the enormity, still: Poland was a much smaller country with a prewar population of 30 million, and the number of those murdered 5-7 times as great as those who died in the World Trade Center.”

In Year of the Hunter, Nobel laureate Czesław Miłosz, who survived the destruction of Warsaw, wrote: “The Soviet state went to great pains to convince the world of its innocence, and its allies took it at its word, or pretended to, so that the Poles were left to stand alone—with the truth, but with a truth proclaimed by the German enemies. And who would have believed them, since they were known for their anti-Soviet ‘complexes’?” Reading a book by an American correspondent in Moscow, Miłosz wrote, “I found the excerpt that reports on the trip by Western diplomats and journalists to Katyń; I read it and almost threw up.”

In 1981, Solidarność erected a memorial with the simple inscription “Katyń, 1940,” but it was dismantled by the police, to be hunterreplaced with an official monument “To the Polish soldiers—victims of Hitler’s fascism—resting in the soil of Katyń.”

Writers found ways to remember it:  Zbignew Herbert, still living in Poland with all the constraints that situation implied, made an oblique reference to Katyń in his poem “Mona Lisa,” when he refers to the “executed forests,” and also in his,”Report from a Besieged City,” using the 1981 imposition of martial law to make oblique comparisons to Poland’s recent past:

Wednesday: cease-fire talks the enemy interned our envoys

we don’t know where they are that is where they were shot