Friday, April 29, 2011

Holocaust Remembrance on PBS: Irena Sendler

There are more Polish citizens recognized by the State of Israel as Righteous among the Nations than any other nationality. Irena Sendler was not just one of the Polish rescuers. She was an underground ringleader. Yet it was not until long after the fall of Communism that the Catholic Sendler was widely hailed for her heroism. Featuring Sendler’s final interview of appreciable length, Mary Skinner’s documentary profile records her words and deeds for posterity in Irena Sendler: In the Name of Their Mothers (trailer here), which airs on PBS stations across the country on Holocaust Remembrance Day, this coming Sunday.

Sendler was not the Irena whose story was told on Broadway in Irena’s Vow. That was Irena Gut. At tremendous personal risk, Gut sheltered twelve Jews slated for “deportation” in the basement of the home commandeered by an SS officer who had impressed her into service as his housekeeper. If not operating directly under the noses of the National Socialists, Sendler still faced profound dangers, eventually even seeing the inside of a Nazi prison and living to tell the tale.

Establishing a network of safe houses, Sendler and her colleagues in the resistance began smuggling children out of the ghetto and teaching them Catholic prayers should they ever be challenged by a German. Indeed, Poland’s widespread Catholicism was a major reason for the network’s success, with many Catholic schools and convents agreeing to shelter Sendler’s children. She even recruited a formerly virulent anti-Semite who simply could not countenance the atrocities underway. Ultimately, they saved over 2,500 children, including one man, now of late middle-aged years, who finally meets a crucial member of Sendler’s network in the film’s moving climax.

Skinner tells an amazing story with respect and economy. One gets a vivid sense of the fear permeating the era, gaining a genuine appreciation of Sendler and her comrades. However, the film never fully explains why Sendler and the veterans of the Polish resistance were largely scorned by the subsequent Communist regime. Of course, it makes intuitive sense that a record of resisting oppression was hardly the ticket to advancement in a Soviet captive nation.

Produced with great sensitivity, Mothers tells an important (but nearly overlooked) episode of history. Along with the recent 100 Voices, it should also help spread recognition of Poland’s record of resistance. It airs on many PBS outlets (check those listings) this Sunday (5/1).