”The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler’’ (2009), a television film directed by John Kent Harrison, focuses on Irena Sendler, a young Polish social worker, who smuggled more or less 2,500 Jewish children to safety during WW II.
The background of the movie is the early 1940’s in Warsaw, Poland. Two years into the war and earlier that year the Germans pushed the Russians back into the Soviet Union and claimed complete control of Poland. The Jew families are being arrested, forced into the ghetto and regularly transported to the infamous concentration camps. People can clearly see that the Germans intend to wipe out the Jewish people from the face of the earth.
Irena Sendler, a sympathizer of the Jews since her childhood, is a Catholic social worker for the city of Warsaw, Poland, in 1941. She visits the ghetto regularly, remains busy for the welfare of the Jewish families, bringing food and clothes to them from the city. Realizing that the Germans are actually deporting the Jews to death camps, in the name of work camps, she hits upon a plan to smuggle out the Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto. Her idea is met with skepticism by her fellow workers and even her mother, Janina. However, equipped with the forged identity of a nurse, she starts to visit the ghetto and tries to convince the adult inmates to allow her to smuggle out the children to safety. She admits to the Jewish parents that the rescued children will be put in Christian families and will have to disguise themselves as Christians for their own safety and protection. The distressed parents were very much skeptical, since they may never see their children again and there is every possibility to lose them forever. However, Irene assures them that she will meticulously document the whereabouts of each child to facilitate their smooth reunion with their parents, once the war is over. Some bemoan the fact that their children will be raised in a faith other than their own and forget their religious belief, tradition, and culture. But Irena tries to make them understand, that is a small price to pay in exchange for keeping them alive.
Before the beginning of the operation, Irena and other resistance workers teaches the children about Christianity and help them to learn the Christian prayers, how to cross themselves and other elements of the Catholic faith. Stefan, a Jewish friend of Irene from her university days, is one of her fellow workers. He is well aware of a few overlooked exits from the ghetto and uses his knowledge to help Irena and others involved with the underground organization Zegota. They plan their strategies and devise routes to smuggle out the children from the ghetto, some in boxes hidden under bricks on wheelbarrows, others through sewer systems, and still others brazenly escorted through the front door of the city hall hand-in-hand with their saviour. Despite the great risk involved in the process and the consequent sacrifice it would mean, Irena and her small band of trusted friends conduct rescues, ignoring the risk of being arrested or shoot. At her home, Irena’s mother has been ill with the signs of a possible stroke. Concerned for her welfare, Irena tries to spare her mother from the possible consequences of helping these children. Yet, occasionally she finds no other way and brings children into her home for overnight stays until they can be taken to the safe shelter.
The scenes between Irena and the children are touching and heartbreaking, especially those between her and Karolyna, an aspiring ballerina. Irena is lovingly tender with each of the children, no matter the amount of time she is with them. However, there are some violent images too. There are innocent people shown being fatally shot; starvation and disease in the ghetto. Women are lined and shot dead. Jews are being brutally evacuated from their buildings and marched to the train station to be deported to work camps, while a group of innocent children, not knowing the implication of the scene, sing a playful song as they walk. Orphan children are herded into a cattle car destined for a concentration camp. At one point a boy and his father are included in one of the transports, and the father takes the desperate risk to save his son’s life by crushing the floorboards and pushing his son through the hole. The most gruesome part of the entire movie is the last twenty minutes when Irena is arrested by the Gestapo and interrogated.
Eventually Irena is arrested by the Gestapo in 1943 and placed in captivity, where she undergoes a series of interrogations, accompanied by torture. Despite best efforts by the Gestapo agents, she refuses to name her collaborators. They beat her legs repeatedly, break her feet and as she is unable to walk on her own, they drag her up a flight of stairs for interrogations and back down again to her cell, at least twice. Finally, she is sentenced to death by firing squad, but at the last moment a guard, bribed by the Polish Home Army resistance movement, frees her. Irene briefly visits her ailing mother, before she is taken to a remote rural farm, where she is reunited with her old flame, Stefan.
Shot in Latvia, ‘The Courageous Heart’ does a meticulous job re-creating the era in a manner that looks every bit as bleak as it should be. It follows Irena’s life from when she began her mission of saving children to her own arrest and going into hiding herself. Oscar nominee Anna Paquin was superb as the fearless, but human Irena. Marcia Gay Harden portrays Irena’s sickly, but supportive mother. Goran Visnjic, is handsome and trustworthy Stefan, Irena’s love interest. And the young stars, that portrayed the children are also noteworthy for playing such a solemn, dramatic roles so well.
In an epilogue, we are informed, Irena and Stefan eventually married. Irene was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007. In a taped interview, she discussed her wartime efforts and paid tribute to the helpless mothers who selflessly agreed to separate from their children and the women who provided them with a safe haven.
It is a fact that, no TV movie could offer the beauty and intricacy of Spielberg’s Oscar-winning film Schindler’s List, but ‘The Courageous Heart of Irene Sendler’ is quite engaging on a smaller scale, full of small, touching moments.