CBS / Hallmark Hall Of Fame production 2009.  Cast: Anna Paquin as Irena Sendler, Marcia Gay Harden as Janina Sendler, Nathaniel Parker as Dr. Majkowski, Goran Višnjić as Stefan, Steve Speirs as Piotr, Paul Freeman as Monsignor Godlewski, Danny Webb as Trojan. Directed and written by John Kent Harrison. The movie is based on the 2005 biography Mother of the Children of the Holocaust: The Irena Sendler Story, by Anna Mieszkowska. Shot in Latvia November – December 2008. Made-for-TV-movie broadcast on April 19, 2009 via CBS. Run-time 95 minutes

Plot Synopsis

This production takes us back to Warsaw, Poland. The Germans had occupied Poland in 1939. The Jewish population was a main target of the Nazis – those who survived the death squads were soon forced to gather in a hermetically closed part of Warsaw, later to become known as the Warsaw Ghetto. The living conditions were beyond description: not enough food, no sufficient living space, catastrophic hygienic conditions and daily random violent assaults by German soldiers soon made a living hell out of this Ghetto. Few Polish people were let in; Jews didn’t get out. There were an estimated 440.000 Jews living inside that Ghetto.

The true story of Irena Sendler recounts the life of a young woman who lived in Warsaw during WWII, being one of the few Christian Polish people who were allowed to get into the Ghetto. We learn that Irena's father was a doctor who died of Typhus. He contracted it while treating parts of the Jewish population. Irena doesn’t seem to bear a grudge because of that; like her late father she has a heart for the suffering of others and tries to make a difference regardless of ethnic or religious origins. She is a social worker back in 1941 when her story sets in and she soon becomes painfully aware of what is happening.

First we see her bringing food and supplies to the ghetto inhabitants. But she gradually realizes that the orphaned children must be smuggled out and put in Polish homes for safe keeping. It doesn’t stop there. As soon as she hears rumours that the Germans are emptying neighbourhoods and taking the residents to "work camps" which are death factories she sets out to convince mothers and fathers to give away their children in order at least for them to survive. She and her helpers find homes for the children who had to be smuggled outside in boxes and via hidden underground tunnels. She risks her own life and well-being to rescue as many children as she possibly can.

In 1943 Irena Sendler and her fellow helpers had to pay of their actions. She was fully aware was she was risking. When asked if she realizes how dangerous her actions are, she quotes her father saying something like this: Didn't father used to say that if you see someone drowning, you must try to save them even if you can't swim? "A requirement dictated by the heart," she later said. Irena was taken prisoner by Nazis soldiers herself, beaten and mistreated so badly her legs and feet were broken, but she managed to escape execution by the help of the Zagota, a Polish resistance group that beforehand gave her money and forged papers to get the kids out of the Ghetto.

In last minutes of the movie we see her being hid by the Zagota, meeting up again with her fellow fighter and lover Stefan. We learn that they got married in 1949. In the very last scene we listen to Irena Sendler herself, giving an interview in 2005 thanking the courageous mothers; those who decided to give away their children in order for them to survive and those who helped raising them in safety. Irena Sendler died in 2008 at the age of 98.

Movie Review

This production gives us a small insight into what true heroism looks like and may I add this, how it still looks like today in our time and age. Today’s heroes are just as obscure and non-prominent as Irena Sendler was for a long time and one last addition: it didn’t “pay off” for her in monetary or celebrity ways.

She didn't posses any special abilities, she was there “at the right time in the right place” and realized that there was a “job” that needed to be done and risked all to over-accomplish it. Her innate sense of decency didn’t allow her any rest. She had a choice to look away, she even had a fine reason to deny helping her “clients” – she was a social worker and not a resistance fighter at first. This is depicted very poignantly in one scene where one of her colleagues drops out of her plan to do more for the Jews in the Ghetto. As Renata Zajdman - a rescued survivor – said,  "she [Irena] is proof that an ordinary person can accomplish extraordinary deeds."

In all, it is estimated that Irena rescued 2,500 children out of the Warsaw Ghetto. (Oskar Schindler, of Schindler's List, rescued 1,100.) By having done that she proved that she wasn’t the usual type; she had a heart, a conscience and a brain. Might as well be that all in all she was your everyday girl, but she also knew what was right and more than that she had the courage to risk all. This production displays the right stuff not too many people have. It is a hugely moral tale without being pathetic. I feel that this production does her justice and honour. Might be that she was very young and simply didn’t care much about the risks for herself and her family and her friends involved, might as well be that she knew full well and did it nonetheless. This production gives us no clues whatsoever about her reasons. She like Oskar Schindler and many others simply couldn’t stay aside and remain in an observing position - that’s what’s to be learned of this fine made-for-TV film.

The movie portrayal is a capable tribute to one of those who put themselves aside to help others during the Holocaust, the try to annihilate everything that didn’t fit into a sick way of looking at our world and that killed everything that said NO to this Nazi philosophy. Nazism is often considered by scholars to be a form of Fascism. Fascism all in all to my understanding can be very tempting especially in times of crisis to people who feel that they are in danger of losing their grounds of living, because it is an easy way out of your problems on the backs of others. Does this ring a bell with our own existing? Please remember that all these “mechanisms” are deeply rooted in ourselves. We do tend to look away because else we couldn’t bear the world with all its injustice, racism and inequalities. Our small lives and our comfy way of living are precious to us. These aspects are a part of human nature and there’s one thing you can do: believing that you are immune to it or that certain things are overcome. It is right there where it gets you. That devil is still there and evil remains as it is part of us. We shouldn’t fall into a self-satisfied sleep in all our luxury.

While many western orientated countries in the world remembered the Holocaust a day after the broadcast, The Day of Remembrance, Iran's President Ahmadinejad spoke before the UN anti-racism conference. He had a public platform to spread his well-known unbearable Holocaust denial theories. Those comments immediately prompted dozens of diplomats from Britain and Europe to walk out. The United States, Israel, Australia, Canada, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, New Zealand and Poland did not even attend in the first place, because of the clear knowing that this forum "would be used as a platform for attacks on Israel." A well deserved slap in the face of people like him that dare deny the Holocaust whilst there are people still living who were the unfortunate witnesses to and the victims of it. There are thousands of documents proving it, millions of people that vanished and never came back. Photos and films showing the camps, and there is historical evidence - military records, hospital records, newspaper articles. Mr. Demjanjuk will stand trial for his actions in Treblinka in Germany later this year. The past is present.

Hallmark still has some background information on their website that is worth reading. I uploaded it to this site just in case they’ll delete after a while once thye advertise on new programme. It tells how this almost forgotten woman's deeds came to be known again. Like so many others I was stunned to read that after the war, she "was shunned into obscurity, and branded a Fascist for saving Jews."  History’s jokes can be cruel and sickening at times.

This production has the right feel for the past and the present. We get a very tight and striking impression on the Warsaw Ghetto, but we’re not the inhabitants of it. We don’t get an impression on how hunger, despair, illness and mistreatments and random killings feel like. We only accompany Irena and are touched, but not struck by the filth, disillusionment and death ourselves. The films I saw that really made you feel what it was like to be “in there” where almost unbearable to watch and never had a greater audience for exactly those reasons. There are a few books out there and they are good reads, but not easy ones.

There are few things that I noticed as a German that felt odd to me, but they weren’t really distracting and maybe they hit me because I’m not a native speaker. Like for instance the signs in front of the Ghetto surely weren’t written in English and the unholy usage of unnecessary character’s accents, but that’s not the point here. The feel is authentic and very real, when we get to observe the torturing scenes we’d rather like to get out and we do fear for Irena’s life. The emotions are believable throughout the film. This is thanks to the brilliant portrayals of the whole cast and a sensitive way the camera follows them. No big egos on display, just a story to tell as convincingly and inartificial as possible.

What’s so sad about it overall is the constant notion that this production had been fiercely cut to fill the standard ninety-five minutes slot US-TV forces upon us. My guess as a non-filmmaker is that this tale needs at least three hours to get more detail and spotlight on Irena’s friends and helpers. This way she almost seems like a lonesome fighter, she was part of a group of people who pulled one string. Who knows, maybe Hallmark is willing to get the scenes from the cutting-room floor back in again for a director’s edition or extra stuff for that soon-to-be-released DVD.

Some reviewers said that there wasn’t enough historical canvas there and I must admit that there’s a painful truth to this, but that’s not a problem of this film alone. Take for instance Dr. Janusz Korczak, a hero in his own right, isn’t really fully explained and remains a side figurine. We do learn through his short appearances that Irena was right in her assumption that even the children would be send to the death camps without any exception. So yes, we do have short-cuts, but they don’t harm the narrative too much. If you’d like to get the whole picture of this Ghetto and all its history: read books please! This is a film about Irena, no more no less. The Holocaust was real – as real as Irena Sendler and her rescued children. Remembrance isn’t a pretext for anything; the Shoah was a human failure of catastrophic proportions and it had many aspects and unholy circumstances to it. To get the whole picture it takes years of study, reading and discussing. Don’t expect a single work of art to get you the whole picture just like that. And don’t give folks a chance who try to put any instant meaning to it. It was a monstrous crime and it had helpers and it had perpetrators and it had victims and it had bystanders and it had resistance and for the first time in human history, it also received judgements and set limits for what the civilized world was willing to take. Make up your own mind on what it all means.

The movie was also criticised by one reviewer that “yet again” the inhabitants of the Warsaw Ghetto were portrayed as defenceless rather sheepish victims that needed help and guidance of Christian half-angles; now in her eyes this is a false and biased point of view. She pledges for the emphasis on Jewish heroism and feels that that’s completely missing here. What can be said about this? Please keep in mind my choice of words: “point of view”. Personally speaking I don’t have any preferences when it comes to religion. This critic’s argument isn’t new and it doesn’t get any better when it’s repeated time and time again once a film dealing with the Holocaust comes out – and especially this one has also been brought forward while Schindler’s List came out. To my belief it isn’t even a very helpful one because it doesn’t say anything about the quality of a movie. It simply displays someone’s set attitude about what one wants to see reflected in a movie.

The vast majority of trapped people at that time didn’t fight for their freedom, because they were unable to. Few non-persecuted people helped them, the whole abhorrent process was a long one and the people got used to their catastrophic living conditions and their isolation. And yes there were freedom fighters (Jewish and non-Jewish) and their story is being told in other films and books. But they were few and they didn’t get a majority of their folks to fight with them and that goes for both sides. And all of this has nothing to do with religious beliefs. The better or worse side to where you were being sorted out to depended on the sickness of the fascist ideology of inferior and superior groups of people and their random definition. Now in this case they chose a religion, an ethnic, a nationality or a sexual orientation or the wrong political attitudes you had. It is only logical that when it comes to tell a story of these dark times you have these groups. Consequently you’ve got one group that is able to help and the other who isn’t. That’s the sickness of Fascism that’s reflected in these narratives.

Now besides that: How could a whole family with several children fight? They believed in the lies the Germans told them to keep them quiet and cooperative. The Germans in their cold-blooded calculation knew that most families would keep their heads down if they only had a tad of hope to cling onto. That’s how the whole self-administration in the Ghetto worked. Especially the attitude of Irena’s best friend’s father displays this false conclusion too sadly. And one last thought on that heroism topic. It was indeed extremely heroic of the Jewish mothers to give away their children. They had to do what no mother does. And we do sense that very deeply in those scenes where one mother is unable to part from her daughter; she pays with both their lives for not being able to say Goodbye. So what’s left to say? Irena was a Christian and she was able to help. The mothers were brave Jewish women that through their courage helped to get their children out. And as sad as it is, many inside the Ghetto remained non-active.

I dislike to converse about what happened and what made people tick from my non-adequate perspective because I’d need experiences that I totally lack. Most of us are modern humans living in the free western world. We really don’t know much about this era because we haven’t lived in it, breathed it every day. It is a very timeless and humane lesson to be learned from Irena’s story, not a reason to start a debate on how I would love to perceive and reinterpret people’s motives and ways they lived sixty years ago or even worse on how I would have liked humans to have been. It is too intriguing to think about how things would have went if only… this is a snooty and dangerous task to do. Take the plank out of your own eye. That’s a hard enough task to do.  Would I have done it – regardless on which side I would have found myself? A great TV-film that raises tricky questions and that’s about all it could possibly do and all we could have wished for. Mission fully accomplished.

Nat Review

As indicated this film was cut dramatically. Unfortunately Nat’s part has been one of the things that didn’t make it to the final version the way it was written originally. There are only few small scenes left. In these scenes we see him playing Dr. Majkowski in a very warm and friendly way, with a tad of humour for his own desperate und impossible situation and his admiration for Irena’s courage. No matter how small this part became in the end, it’s a great honour to be a part of it and Nat did well to take on such a task. Well done to you and thanks from us for making us a tad more conscious about human nature. The future needs remembrance.


Broadcast via CBS stations nationwide in the USA on April 19, 2009. Out on a US DVD edition from May 28, 2009.

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