Catholic social worker Irena Sendler saved 2,500 Jewish children from death in the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II. A film screening and filmmaker Q&A on Feb. 1 at Elms College will tell her story.

Irena Sendler Film Screening

Polish social worker Irena Sendler, shown here at age 95 in 2005, organized a child-smuggling operation to save 2,500 Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II. Courtesy of 2B Productions.

Film Celebrates Social Worker’s Heroism During Holocaust 

Catholic social worker Irena Sendler saved 2,500 Jewish children from death in the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II. This is her story.

Would you give up your child to strangers for the chance that he or she might live? It’s a heart-stopping idea. But for about 2,500 Jewish children in the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II, it was their only hope.

The question came from Irena Sendler, a young Polish Catholic social worker who organized an underground child-smuggling operation to help Jewish children escape the Nazis.

Sendler rallied friends and colleagues to hide infants on outgoing trucks and lead older children out through sewers and passageways, and she arranged for priests and social services officials to provide forged documents to ensure safe passage to orphanages and convents outside Warsaw. She made sure each Jewish child was taught to evade interrogators by using a Christian name and reciting Catholic prayers. Further, she kept a list of the children’s true names, so that they could reunite with their families after the war.

Ultimately, the Gestapo caught Sendler and tried to interrogate her -- but even though they tortured her and sentenced her to death, she refused to divulge any details. 

Event to honor Sendler's legacy

A documentary film, Irena Sendler: In the Name of Their Mothers, will be shown at 1:30 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 1, in the Alumnae Library at Elms College in Chicopee, Mass. This one-hour program features interviews with Irena Sendler herself, obtained before her death in 2008, as well as her colleagues and several of the children they rescued. Their stories are told through rare footage, family photographs and dramatic recreations filmed in Warsaw.

This event is free and open to the public. Seating is limited; please register at www.elms.edu/irenasendler. A conversation with the film’s producer and director, Mary Skinner, will follow the screening.

Irena Sendler Film Screening

Rescued Jewish children at a Polish convent in 1943. Courtesy of 2B Productions.

Skinner grew up hearing her mother, Klotylda Joswiak, talk about the courage and compassion of Polish heroines. As a teenager in Poland, Joswiak was sent to a concentration camp for smuggling food.

“My own mother was rounded up in early 1941 and sent to forced labor near Buchenwald,” Skinner said. “After that, her whole future depended on the kindness of strangers. She was helped by many, many women after the war -- in convents, orphanages and charitable organizations. Were it not for them, she would not have survived, and obviously I wouldn’t be here. So many of us are indebted to women like Irena Sendler, who act from their hearts in the worst of times.”

“These were women who from the very beginning of the war were looking for ways to be of service to those who were less fortunate,” she added. “They were running soup kitchens, distributing medicine and food to the poor, taking care of the sick and wounded. They did it just from their hearts. Irena Sendler told me that not long after the war began it was clear that the least fortunate were the Jews, and that they just had to get to them and help them.”

Skinner met Sendler in 2003 and knew right away that her story needed to be captured on film -- a story of moral courage, tireless commitment, feminine guile and even “organizational genius,” in the words of one of the children Sendler saved.

It’s a powerful story, one that remained untold once the war had ended. “After the war, the Communists suppressed stories about Poles who were working in the underground, because they were essentially fighting for a free and independent Poland, not a Soviet satellite -- they were politically incorrect,” Skinner said. “Many of Irena Sendler’s co-workers were afraid to speak about their wartime experiences and so they died in obscurity. By the end of the Cold War, Irena Sendler was one of the few from the circle that was still alive, and although she was known in certain circles, it was difficult to get people outside of Poland interested in her story.”

And Sendler herself didn’t see her wartime actions as all that extraordinary, she told Skinner: “ ‘If you see a person is drowning, you don’t ask questions -- you just go in and get them out,’ she insisted. What they did was as natural to them as breathing.”

Telling Sendler's tale

But Skinner knew it was indeed extraordinary, so she set out to tell Sendler’s tale through film, which was a labor of love. “It took me much longer to finish than I thought,” she said. “I worked on it for almost seven years, in between my other jobs, because there was so much research to do and I had to spend so much time raising funding for it. I went to Poland the first time in 2004 for several months and then returned at least two more times as I uncovered missing pieces of the story. It was difficult for people to talk about those times, and it took me time to persuade them.”

Through the years, Sendler’s drive to help others, to organize, to make the world a better place never wavered. “To the end of her life,” Skinner said, “Irena Sendler continued to organize help for those she felt needed her -- calling around the world from her nursing home wheelchair, using her big-button phone with her reading glasses and a pencil, and her ancient, dog-eared Rolodex card file.”

There’s a lot to learn from this one story. “The victims of the Holocaust were mostly innocent, fragile and pious women and children,” Skinner said. “We need to remember them often and remember how important it is that such horrors never happen again. I hope audiences come away from the film knowing that, even in the darkest times, individuals can make a difference when we collaborate with each other and keep our hearts open.”

This screening is the first event in a series of two celebrating Irena Sendler’s heroism. It is presented by Elms College; Women’s Philanthropy, a division of the Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts; the Kosciuszko Foundation, New England Chapter; and a generous grant from the Jewish Endowment Foundation of Western Massachusetts’ Harold Grinspoon & Diane Troderman Hatikvah Holocaust Education Fund.

Next month, in the second part of the series, Veritas Auditorium will host the first Western Massachusetts performance of the play Life in a Jar, a powerful reenactment of Sendler’s life story.

For more information about both events, visit www.elms.edu/irenasendler.

What:Film screening of Irena Sendler: In the Name of Their Mothers, followed by discussion with filmmaker Mary Skinner.
Where:Alumnae Library, Elms College, 291 Springfield St., Chicopee MA 01013.
When:1:30-3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 1.
Admission:Free. The public is encouraged to attend. Registration is required.