Monday, May 25, 2009

Have you heard of Irena Sendler?

I know I'm a little behind the curve here but did any of you see the film, The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler on the Hallmark Channel? I Tivoed it when it aired but, faced with the prospect of seeing another melodramatic Holocaust movie (complete with clich├ęd Nazi brutality and weeping Jewish victims), I let it fall down in my queue.

Well, I came across it last week and ended up watching it. For all its shortcomings (curiously enthusiastic Catholic families eagerly welcoming Jewish children into their homes and their families, minimal addressing of Polish anti-Semitism, etc...), the story itself made compelling TV. Irena Sendler, a Catholic social worker in Warsaw, became so incensed at the treatment of Jews inside the Warsaw ghetto that she conspired with a small group of trusted colleagues to smuggle children out of the ghetto. In the end, she managed to save over 2,500 Jewish children (the famous Oskar Schindler, for example, saved 1,100).

Yet the most fascinating part of the story is what was not explored on screen. In typical made-for-TV fashion, the movie ends when Sendler is reunited with her lover and we are left to assume that they lived happily ever after in post-war Poland. However, while perusing Hallmark Channel’s website after the movie, I realized how wrong that was. In reality, she lived in obscurity following the war, was labeled a fascist by the Communist regime and—even after 1989--chose not to discuss her role in saving these children because of lingering anti-Semitism in Poland. Instead, it fell to a group of high school students in Kansas to uncover her story and bring it to light.

Addressing the psychological aftershocks of total war is a far messier business than the typical good vs. evil narrative so often marketed to the Hallmark audience. But if the directors chose to expand the arc of the movie to encompass the postwar life of their heroine, it would have provided an additional, richer, dimension to the story and placed Sendler’s extraordinary actions into even greater relief. That would have been a movie I would have watched right away.


Beth said...

I never did watch the full movie, but I am now disappointed that I did not. I was put off by the saccharine nature of the small parts that I did see. I agree with you that seeing Sendler's postwar experience would have been unique and worth an epilogue. As you note, too often, the complexities of life are reduced to black/white and good/evil. Life is much more complicated than that. Did Ms. Sendler realize that her actions were appreciated during her lifetime? Did she receive any awards from Jewish organizations/ the Israeli government during her lifetime? Interesting that Schindler's efforts were recognized yet her efforts were even more successful.


Cultural Infidel said...

Yes exactly! I think that the lack of complexity in many films that deal with the Holocaust can be traced to what audiences want to see. In the piece that A.O. Scott wrote at the end of last year about Holocaust movies, he says that American audiences are looking for movies that end on a note of hope and redemption and it is that narrative arc that has come to define the Holocaust movie genre.

As for Ms. Sendler's story, there was a small article about her in a 1994 US News and World Report that these high school students in Kansas and inspired them to do a history project on her which eventually led to her story being told. When the students discovered her story, she was in her late 80s. In 2007, she was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

But it would be interesting to know why her story remained untold for so many years and why Schindler's story was made into an Oscar-winning film. Of course Schindler's story was first a book, by Thomas Kennelly, and that, I believe, is what inspired Spielberg to make the movie. Now, despite Ms. Sendler's story being unknown, the resistance organization that she worked for (which is not really highligted in the film) Zegota, has been quite well-known since the 1960s and its members are memorialised in Israel.