The story of Irena Sendler, a social worker who was part of the Polish underground during World War II and was arrested by the Nazis for saving the lives of nearly 2,500 Jewish children by smuggling them out of the Warsaw ghetto.(Imdb)
It’s a given, this column noted a while back, that in “Hallmark Hall of Fame” productions darkness may threaten, but not for long — not in those gleaming, handsomely mounted dramas with their inevitable satisfactory resolutions. All the more remarkable, then, that this weekend should bring “The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler” (Sunday, 9-11 p.m. EDT, on CBS), a new production so terrifying in its power and its refusal of false notes. There is in this story of the Polish social worker who — with a band of like-minded compatriots — set about saving as many Jews as she could from annihilation at the hands of the German occupiers no glimmer of happy endings or darkness lifting.
This is a “Hallmark Hall of Fame” film unlike any other — but more important by far, it’s unlike any other ever made on this history of rescuers and the rescued. In writer-director John Kent Harrison’s picture, the heroes aren’t given to speechmaking about the noble cause, and neither do the Germans make declarations on their ultimate aims for the Jews — which is, in any event, entirely clear. That scrupulous avoidance of underlining and bombast would by itself be a case for the film’s distinction, but it’s only one of many.
Count among those other cases its unsparing authenticity. The film (shot in Riga, Latvia) propels us into the life of those grim Warsaw streets, both inside the ghetto, where some 441,000 Jews were packed, and outside, where Irena Sendler (Anna Paquin) and her colleagues operated. The details of life in the confines of the ghetto, which the real Irena Sendler was able to visit in her role as a social worker, flash by quickly — familiar images of the emaciated, the dying, the children at play among the corpses or engaged in the deadlier business of food smuggling.
What is much less familiar is the story of the rescue efforts that took place outside those walls, which Irena Sendler and her allies in the secret organization known as Zegota — Council for Assistance to the Jews — undertook. She was the chief organizer of the effort that resulted in the saving of 2,500 Jewish children; and before her work with Zegota, she provided hundreds of Jews of all ages with false papers, and managed to get them to hiding places outside the ghetto — otherwise known as the Aryan side.
But, as the film makes clear — as some of the film’s exaggerated publicity efforts unfortunately don’t — she was not alone in her mission. In a country whose population of anti-Semites was not sparse — Poles who celebrated the deportation of their neighbors, betrayed Jews in hiding, or extorted money from some in exchange for remaining silent and then, when the Jews could pay no more, turned them over to the Germans — there was another class of Polish society. Mostly from the intelligentsia, or political activists, committed Catholics and assorted others, they were entirely aware of the mortal peril in which this work placed them — and their numbers were, nevertheless, not few. They provided the false papers, scouted for the hiding places, persuaded other Poles on the Aryan side to shelter Jews, and foraged for intelligence on the deportations. Their spies brought the first warnings to the ghetto inhabitants — not easily believed — of the destination to which those trains would likely take them. Namely, to their immediate deaths — and not, as the Germans always took pains to persuade them, to camps where they could perform useful labor for the Reich.
One of the film’s most chilling scenes is set in a quiet room where Irena talks to Jewish friends, anguished over the prospect of giving their young daughter over to unknown Christian rescuers. They fear the separation, that they will never see her again or that she’ll be converted — and that it will have all been done over fears that may be baseless. They had heard, after all, that deportation meant they were going to labor camps. Her intelligence reports say otherwise, Irena finally informs them. The trains packed with Jews are emptied at a place called Treblinka — a camp without barracks. They have no difficulty grasping the implication — the camp is a killing center. It has no other function.
Irena Sendler regularly confronted this wrenching task — namely, getting parents to agree to give up their children — and she was up to the work. As her history reveals, nothing in life mattered so much as this mission of saving as many doomed as possible. There was, indeed, no other life. Among the things she found it necessary to do — with the world collapsing all around her and ever worse danger threatening — was to establish an elaborately coded record of the identity of every child saved, which she buried underground so it would be available to family members who had survived. It was her own way of ensuring that the children she saved would not be lost to their families or their faith.
Anna Paquin delivers a remarkably persuasive portrayal of this dauntless woman who died in May of last year. For viewers not quite sure what it is exactly that Ms. Paquin’s character is doing slicing up all those mysterious strips of paper at regular intervals — those are her coded records. The uniformly impressive cast includes Nathaniel Parker, dashing in the role of Dr. Majkowski, head of Warsaw’s Department of Health and invaluable helper in the rescue efforts. The most affecting performance of all, perhaps, is to be found in Marcia Gay Harden’s portrayal of Irena’s mother, Janina — an impossibly slender role of few words, from which Ms. Harden extracts astonishing depths.