The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler

Produced By:  Hallmark Hall of Fame Productions

Reviewed by Melissa Minners


            Amazing – I watch an older film about the Holocaust and suddenly movies and books about the subject seem to appear everywhere I turn.  I’ve recently become quite a fan of the Hallmark Hall of Fame movies airing on CBS every so often.  Their latest film, The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler, deals with the true story of the heroism and bravery of a woman whose actions helped save the lives of over 2500 Jewish children by smuggling them out of the Warsaw ghetto during World War II.   

            When I first discovered that The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler was a true story, I was amazed that I had never heard of Irena Sendler before.  I had been told and read of numerous tales of Polish families that had worked to hide Jews from the Nazis during that time, several suffering severe punishment when caught, but never before had I  heard of the woman who had saved the lives of so many children in the ghetto.  But, I suppose that there are many tales of heroism that occurred during that time performed by people whose names have been long forgotten. 

            Irena Sendler was a social worker in Poland during World War II.  Growing up, Irena had been taught that Jews were simply people who practiced a different religion, nothing more.  Irena’s father was a doctor who treated many poor Polish families, including Jews.  Many of Irena’s closest friends were Jews.  Now, with the invasion of Poland by Hitler’s army, Irena cannot abide with the rules and regulations thrust upon her by Germans which require her to treat the Jewish people of Poland as if they were subhuman.  Instead, she finds ways to rebel against this injustice.

            She begins small, bringing food, medicine and clothing to the oppressed and starved people.  Then, she becomes more daring, smuggling out a child here or there – ones that could pass as Christians – and bringing them to Polish families willing to hide them.  As restrictions are made tighter on the ghetto and Irena begins to hear talk of people disappearing from the ghetto, Irena decides she must step up the process.  She knows she cannot hope to smuggle whole families out of the ghetto.  Instead, it is the children – the future generations of Jews – that she knows she must save from the camps.

            Enlisting the aide of several co-workers who feel the same way about the treatment of the Jews and eventually joining the Polish underground in an effort to gain funding and assistance in avoiding capture, Irena smuggles children out of the ghetto each day.  Promising their families that she will do her absolute best to find them and return their children to them, Irena begins to keep an encrypted log of the children and their placements.  How long can she continue to keep this up before the Nazis catch on to her defiance?

            I’ve enjoyed Anna Paquin’s acting for some time, but I think that her portrayal of Irena Sendler may be her finest moment as an actress.  Irena’s is a complicated role – sure of herself yet extremely vulnerable, loving yet tough, proud yet humble – this is the role of a lifetime for Paquin and she played it perfectly.  Marcia Gay Harden portrays Janina Sendler, Irena’s extremely supportive mother.  Much ado was made about her starring in this film, but she really doesn’t do much except worry over Irena and show her support.  Goran Visnjic, Michelle Dockery, Fiona Glascott, and a host of other fine actors are featured in this film, but the focus of the film is Irena Sendler and so, Anna Paquin’s acting stands out above the rest.

            The real drama lies in how Irena gets the children out – the ingenuity and imagination of the people in smuggling 2500 children out of the ghetto, often under the Gestapo’s noses is truly amazing and very well represented in this film.  I had heard of children smuggled out in suitcases and the like, but one can never truly imagine the desperation needed to carry out such acts unless they are experiencing it.  Hopefully, viewing this on film is as close as one will ever get to experiencing such a desperate act, but just viewing it is heart-wrenching and awe-inspiring.

            As for why I had never heard of Irena Sendler – that was all explained at the end of the film.  It appears that Irena was quite happy to live her life out without any recognition for her deeds.  In her mind, she was not a hero, but a woman doing what needed to be done when faced with an extreme injustice.  It wasn’t until 1999, when a small clipping about her was introduced to some Kansas high school students in history class, that Irena Sendler’s actions became more well-known.  Inspired by her life, the students created a play entitled Life in a Jar.  After ten years, the play and the media attention it garnered caused Irena Sendler to become internationally known and recognized.

            The folks at Hallmark Hall of Fame have done it again.  The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler is not simply an interesting tale, but a true story about a woman with the courage to fight back against what she believed in her heart to be wrong.  This was a woman willing to risk her life so that the Jewish people of Poland might still have a chance at survival through their children.  Although created on a much smaller scale, this film rates right up there with Schindler’s List in its importance.  Anyone looking to expand their knowledge of the historic events that took place during World War II must include this film in their list of cinematic features based on real-life events.


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