The Female 'Schindler'

In CBS' The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler, Anna Paquin brilliantly portrays an unsung Catholic Pole who saved Jews during World War II. Kati Marton on why the movie is a must-see.

In CBS' The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler, Anna Paquin brilliantly portrays an unsung Catholic Pole who saved Jews during World War II. Kati Marton, author of The Great Escape and Wallenberg, on why the movie is a must-see.

Sixty-four years later, the Holocaust still disgorges astonishing stories of treachery and man’s capacity for evil. We especially need these stories now, as there are ever fewer survivors left, eyewitness accounts yielding to the historians’ more detached version of events. For successive generations to grasp the enormity of the mass murder of millions in the heart of Europe, we need to hear the survivors’ memories. This Sunday, with The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler, CBS presents such a story.

Watch the Trailer of The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler

It's a deeply moving drama based on the little-known true story of Sendler, who is credited with rescuing 2,500 Jewish children from the Warsaw ghetto during World War II. We are accustomed to books and films about violent Polish anti-Semitism, but The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler portrays a local Catholic who risked her life to save Jewish children.

Anna Paquin, a fine, subtle actress, whom we first met as a child in The Piano (which she won an Oscar for at age 11), is convincing as Irena, giving her the right touch of stubborn determination without robbing her of her human substance. A nurse/social worker employed by the city of Warsaw, Irena knows she cannot rely on goodness alone if she is to outsmart her chief enemy, the Gestapo. In the race to snatch children from the tightening noose around the Warsaw ghetto, she must use all her wiles. So she teaches Jewish kids not only to make the sign of the cross, but also to “lie with more conviction” to save themselves. To Irena falls the cruel challenge of persuading parents to part from their children. When one mother tells her to come back tomorrow, as her child is not yet ready, we sense that tomorrow will be too late.

In the vast sea of “reality” TV, this exceptional program deserves to be seen by a large audience. As much as Schindler’s List is an attempt to grapple with the unfathomable mystery of man’s capacity for evil, this film is about the equally mysterious human capacity for goodness. “There must be other Poles who wish to help the Jews,” Irena says hopefully to a Catholic priest. “Its possible,” the Monsignor answers, without much conviction. We are constantly reminded that the majority of Poles did nothing to thwart the genocide. The mystery behind what motivates people like Irena Sendler remains unanswered.

Irena Sendler lived to the ripe age of 95, and we see and hear her at the end of the film, a warm and spirited woman with seemingly no regrets. She lived a full life and gave many others a chance to do so, as well, an extraordinary figure from an era with a tragic shortage of heroes. Heroism is not simply enduring when you have no choice, as a prisoner does—that is courage. Heroism is when you have a choice, and you embrace danger for the sake of others. That is what Irena Sendler did.

Like that other Righteous Gentile, Raoul Wallenberg, who saved thousands of Hungarian Jews before being taken prisoner by the Red Army, Irena Sender, too, paid a price for her courage. “You have been denounced by many people,” the Gestapo agent informs Irena, when they finally come for her. The scene depicting her torture is tough viewing. Observing her success in outsmarting the brutes, the viewer is nagged by a persistent question. How many other lives might have been saved, if others had made this choice? How many people, how many countries, including our own, pleaded that there was nothing to be done? Hitler had all the power. The Jews none. Irena Sendler was one of those who made liars of them.

In her shiny white nurse’s cap, Irena Sendler is a singular a presence in the Kafkaesque landscape of the Warsaw ghetto.

Irena is drawn to the handsome Stefan, a Warsaw Jew played by ER’s Dr. Luka Kovac, Goran Visnjic. When they finally kiss inside a wardrobe we (and she) are provided a welcome break from the general gloom of the mounting war. Marcia Gay Harden disappears magically into her role as Irena’s suffering but supportive mother—her Polish accent as convincing as everything else this actress does on stage and on camera. Like the Jewish mothers in the ghetto, she, too, makes the supreme sacrifice of parting from her daughter—in the nightmarish world this film portrays, a mother or father’s greatest act of love is handing her child to a stranger, or, in one pulse quickening scene, pushing a child out of a fast moving Treblinka-bound train.

Filmed in Riga, Latvia, in monochromatic, sepia tones, the film evokes a world drained of life and color. Occasionally, a dab of red slashes the gloom: a child’s toy truck or a pair of mittens, perhaps an homage to Spielberg’s use of the little girl’s red coat in Schindler’s List. The occasional shot of Nazis obsessively filming their own nightmare scenario is a nice cinematic touch.

Irena somehow manages to focus on the future—when “her” children will be reunited with their parents. She scrupulously recorded the destination of the 2,500 children she smuggles out of the ghetto, for the eventual postwar reunion with their families. The viewer, of course, knows how few of those parents will survive the Holocaust.

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Though the look and feel of this film captures a bygone era, Irena Sendler’s story is no historic artifact. After Srebrenica, after the genocides in Rwanda and Darfur, and in the long shadow of 9/11, the film’s lesson resonates. How fast a people can be destroyed, we are reminded, once the power of hate is unleashed. In her shiny white nurse’s cap, Irena Sendler is a singular a presence in the Kafkaesque landscape of the Warsaw ghetto. The haters who surround and overwhelm her may have changed countries and uniforms since then, but we are daily reminded that they have not vanished.

The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler airs on CBS on Sunday, April 19, at 9 p.m. EST.

Kati Marton is an author and Peabody Award-winning journalist who has reported for ABC News, National Public Radio as well as a number of print outlets. Her latest book is The Great Escape: Nine Jews Who Fled Hitler and Changed the World.