Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Courageous Heart of Irene Sendler

My favourite "made for television" movies are from the Hallmark Hall of Fame. Tonight their latest offering is being aired on CBS television at 9:00 p.m. EST.

Here's a press release from Hallmark concerning The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler. Hope you can see it tonight!

~ David

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (March 19, 2009) — The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler, the 236th presentation of the Hallmark Hall of Fame, recounts the inspiring true story of the brave woman who helped save the lives of 2,500 Jewish babies and young children in the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II. Academy Award winner Anna Paquin (The Piano, True Blood) plays the title role; another Academy Award winner, Marcia Gay Harden (Pollock, In From the Night), plays her mother, Janina. Goran Visnjic (ER) is Stefan, a friend from Irena’s university days who helps Irena and her underground network map out strategies and routes to smuggle the children out of the ghetto.

The film premieres on CBS Sunday, April 19, 2009, 9-11 p.m. PT/ET.

Irena Sendler was a Catholic social worker, but used fake identification to pass herself off as a nurse, which allowed her to enter and exit the walled-off ghetto with relative ease. She used that advantage to mount the daring and dangerous operation to smuggle children to safety.

Finally, in 1943, the Gestapo arrested Sendler. She spent three months in captivity, undergoing interrogation and torture. She betrayed no one. After she was sentenced to death, a guard – bribed by the Polish resistance movement – freed her.

Irena Sendler was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, and died at age 98 in May 2008. While alive, she was never comfortable being singled out for special recognition. She always reminded people that smuggling and then protecting all those children represented a collective effort on the part of many brave souls, including couriers, nuns, priests and Polish families, to say nothing of the close-knit band of mostly women who were part of her underground smuggling network.

Anna Paquin researched the life and times of Irena Sendler before filming began in November 2008, in Riga, Latvia.

“She was extraordinarily strong,” Paquin says, “and extraordinarily modest. She had no sense of being in any way special or heroic. She was angry about what was happening to the Jews she knew personally, and the thousands more she didn’t know. She said the only way she could live through that terrible time was to do something. She felt she had no choice.”

Paquin continues, “When she was asked years later, ‘Weren’t you scared?’ she answered, ‘Yes – but my anger was stronger!’

“It speaks to her sense of mission and her sense of humility that for the rest of her life, looking back on those war years, she felt she hadn’t done enough.”

Marcia Gay Harden says Irena Sendler and her fellow smugglers weren’t the only individuals worthy of praise during that troubled time.

“Equally amazing, I think,” Harden says, “is the courage of the mothers and fathers who kissed their babies one last time and then parted with them, so they’d have a chance to live. I think everybody who sees this film will ask themselves if they would have had the courage to do that.”

Asked to describe Anna Paquin’s performance in the lead role, Marcia Gay Harden says, “Anna is portraying more than the nobility of Irena Sendler. She’s portraying the humanity of Irena Sendler.”

The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler is written by John Kent Harrison and Lawrence John Spagnola, based on the book The Mother of the Holocaust Children by Anna Mieszkowska.

John Kent Harrison directs. This is his sixth Hallmark Hall of Fame film; previous projects include William Faulkner’s Old Man, What the Deaf Man Heard and The Water Is Wide. Jeff Rice (The Watcher), Jeff Most (The Specialist) and Brent Shields (Front of the Class) are the executive producers. It is from Jeff Most/Jeff Rice Productions and Hallmark Hall of Fame Productions, Inc.


  1. An Open Letter to The Nobel Peace Prize Committee

    October 13, 2007

    Irena Sendler recounts that if mothers waiting in the Ghetto for their death were unable to separate themselves from their children, whom only she was able to rescue, Irena Sendler would one day return to find an empty apartment. The families would already be on trains to Treblinka. Only then did Irena Sendler know for certain that no one in the world was able to save that child - that in a few hours a horrible death would await him or her in a gas chamber - because only she could have, and now it was too late.

    No League of Nations, no humanitarian organization, no International Red Cross, no Catholic Church, no Pope, no association of Protestant Churches, no court, no government, no parliament, no president, no prime minister, no marshal, no king, no police, and no army was able to help these children; nor did they. No European nor world institution, no system of collective safeguards created to thwart the massive and genocidal murder of the innocent and defenseless was able to save these children; nor did it.

    During World War II, in the geographic heart of Christian Europe, Europeans for years were murdering millions of people for racial reasons.

    For the first time in history, Europeans were also murdering children en masse. Jewish and Gypsy children, like their parents, were starved to death, tortured, subjected to pseudo-scientific experimentation, were victimized by professional killing squads (Einsatzgruppen), were buried and burned alive, were gunned down, and foremost, were murdered in the gas chambers of death camps. In fact a certain constituency of the adult world came to the conclusion in those years that killing parents was not enough, that killing children was just as proper, and just as necessary. These people had at their disposal both the means and power to do so. And thus they killed over a million and a half children. These children were not murdered by lunatics, but by the organized, precise, and efficient machine of a totalitarian state.

    Europe did not want, could not, and was not able to do anything about this. One part of Europe was unaware. Another part of Europe was ambivalent. Yet another part of Europe was helpless and powerless. Europe in general was guilty of looking the other way, of cowardice, and of a lack of imagination. Still another part of Europe was guilty of active participation in atrocities. The only help these children received came rather sporadically from a few, regular, unknown people who believed their lives were not worth more than the lives of these children; that is why they risked themselves. These people saved lives, but they also preserved the very fundamental values without which life has no meaning at all.

    Irena Sendler, a thirty-year-old Polish woman from Warsaw, along with a group of co-conspirators, rescued the largest number of children during those years. Irena Sendler, without waiver, risked her life, and acted with bravery and efficiency to save them. She would place a band with the Star of David on her arm, walk through gates of the Ghetto, and thus would begin her fight with the most powerful extermination machine in human history. She would take Jewish children by the hand, and risking her own life, would secure not only their life, but also the lives of their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. It is necessary to remember this to understand the words of the Talmud: “He who saves one life, saves the entire world.”

    Irena Sendler saved this world day-by-day, child-by-child, and the world didn’t even know it.

    Finally, after more than six decades, there came a moment for the world to know who saved it. Irena Sendler was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize – at ninety-seven years of age - as the last living representative of a small number of the epoch’s moral giants who acted precisely when Europe was at its moral nadir.

    The world must know about Irena Sendler because the world will need her again, more than once. The world needs her constantly and continually. Wherever organizations, institutions, and collective safeguards against lawlessness and mass murder fail, Irena Sendler is essential. When racial, class, or religious hatred comes to power, and has the means of mass-murder at its disposal, everything fails except the will of a single individual and their determination to save human life at the cost of their own. Irena Sendler never fails.

    Today we can only hope that there is an Irena Sendler of 2007 in Darfur, where an official UN report claims there are over a million children exposed to death, rape, and torture, without the protection of even a single humanitarian institution.

    The nomination of Irena Sendler for the Nobel Peace Prize gave you the chance to recognize the universal message of peace embodied in her character and her work.

    Yet after sixty years, you, the members of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee, an honored European and world institution, failed to recognize the work of Irena Sendler as deserving of the highest distinction in service of the idea of peace. Saving the lives of over 2,500 Jewish children from certain death by Irena Sendler at a time when Europe was paralyzed by fear and powerlessness, and the punishment for helping even one Jewish child was death, did not merit distinction in your eyes.

    You failed to recognize that in extreme situations, when peace is not only endangered but becomes a dead concept, if it is necessary to save innocent life, humanity can only count on Irena Sendler’s stand, and the bearing of those who think and act as she did, no matter the time and place.

    You failed to recognize that this was the final chance to honor one of the last living persons who did the most for peace, not in a military or political sense, but entirely in the real-world sense, where matters of life and death of innocents actually take place when the world’s ethical compass is destroyed.

    You failed to recognize that awarding Irena Sendler the Nobel Peace Prize would not award the past as much as it could be your stand for the future of the world.

    That same world that Irena Sendler remembers from the Warsaw Ghetto: Did the World help me when I was saving these children? I walked the streets, crying over my helplessness…

    In January, 2007, on the occasion of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Irena Sendler said: The world has learned nothing from the lessons of World War II and the Shoah.

    By your decision, announced on October 12th, 2007, you proved that you, as the Nobel Peace Prize Committee, do in fact belong to that same world that had understood little and had learned even less.

    Paul Jedrzejewski

  2. I can't say anything to add anymore depth to what I have just read. I am so sorry that the world has learned nothing from previous wars. I know there are people out there that when put in a similar situation would risk their lives to save others, I am very afraid we may one day soon hope someone like that is in our little corner of the globe. I would love to get very frank and tell my opinion of how the person that won the Nobel Peace Prize was not worth one hair of this precious woman, but I won't. In the last days what is wrong is right and what is right is wrong.

  3. Wow, thanks for the blog post and for the comment by Anonymous. It is great to hear others sharing her wonderful story and heart.

    I especially like the part about "No League of Nations, no humanitarian organization, no International Red Cross, no Catholic Church, no Pope, no association of Protestant Churches, no court, no government, no parliament, no president, no prime minister, no marshal, no king, no police, and no army was able to help these children; nor did they." But she and her friends did! Amazing story.

    Irena is featured on our blog over at

    You can read about her directly at Irena Sendler