"I sit here as a testament to those people who were committed to saving a Jewish child's life."
— William Donat
Irena Sandler In the Name of Their Mothers is the story of a group of young Polish women, who outfoxed the Nazis during World War II and saved the lives of thousands of Jewish children.
Irena Sendler, a petite social worker, was not yet thirty years old when Nazi tanks rolled into Warsaw in September of 1939. When the city's Jews were imprisoned behind a ghetto wall without food or medicine, she appealed to her closest friends and colleagues, mostly young women, some barely out of their teens. Together, they smuggled aid in and smuggled Jewish orphans out of the ghetto by hiding infants on trams and garbage wagons and leading older children out through secret passageways and the city’s sewers. Catholic birth certificates and identity papers were forged and signed by priests and high ranking officials in the Social Services Department so that the children could be taken from safe houses in Warsaw to orphanages and convents in the surrounding countryside.
The scheme was fraught with danger. The city was crawling with ruthless blackmailers, and the Gestapo were constantly on the look out for Jews who had escaped from the ghetto. "You are not Rachel but Roma. You are not Isaac but Jacek. Repeat it ten times, a hundred, even a thousand times," says Irena, who knew that any child on the street could be stopped and interrogated. If he was unable to recite a Catholic prayer he could be killed.
Magda Rusinek tells us how she taught the children "little prayers that every child knows in Polish. I would wake them up during the night to say the prayer," says the Sendler collaborator who had joined the Polish Resistance as a teenager. "And then I had to teach them how to behave in a church, a Christian Church."
"They treated me like their own child," says Poitr Zettinger, recalling how the sisters would warn him when the Gestapo came to the convent. "They would tell me when I should hide so I'd run up to the attic. I'd hide in a cupboard there." William Donat, a New York businessman, describes the conflicts inherent in the extraordinary situation. "I was baptized and I was converted and, became a very, very strong Catholic. I was praying every day for perhaps a little more food and for Jesus to forgive me for the terrible sin that I had been born a Jew."
Sendler and her cohorts kept meticulous records of the children's Jewish names so that they could be reunited with their parents after the war. Donat was one of the few whose parents survived.
In 1942, as conditions worsened and thousands of Jews were rounded up daily and sent to die at the Treblinka death camp, less than hour outside Warsaw, Sendler and her cohorts began to appeal to Jewish parents to let their children go. Sixty years later, Irena still has nightmares about the encounters. "Those scenes over whether to give a child away were heart-rending. Sometimes, they wouldn't give me the child. Their first question was, 'What guarantee is there that the child will live?' I said, 'None. I don't even know if I will get out of the ghetto alive today."
Indeed, Sendler and her colleagues were taking an enormous risk says Wladyslaw Bartoszewski of the Polish Resistance. "No work, not printing underground papers, transporting weapons, planning sabotage against the Germans, none of it was as dangerous as hiding a Jew. You have a ticking time bomb in your home. If they find out, they will kill you, your family and the person you are hiding." Magda Rusinek describes one harrowing escape with a small child. "The street was blocked so I ran through gates I knew were still open with him under my arm. And we just managed to get to the apartment when they blocked it. So it was seconds. Absolute seconds."
Sendler describes, as though it were yesterday, how the Gestapo came to her apartment on her Saint's Day, October 20th, 1943. Desperate to hide the list of hidden children and their Jewish names, she looked out her window. "There were two Germans walking around. Nine were coming up the stairs." At the last moment, she tossed the list to a friend who hid it under her arm. Irena was taken to the notorious Pawiak prison where she was tortured for refusing to give up information about her co-conspirators and their work. She escaped as she was being led to her execution, thanks to friends who had managed to bribe a guard at the last moment.
Irena and her colleagues continued their work. With the help of the Polish Resistance and some 200 convents and orphanages in the city of Warsaw and throughout the countryside, they managed to save the lives of at least 2,500 Jewish children.
Suppressed during the Communist regime in post-war Poland, and for decades afterwards, Sendler's story finally comes to American audiences through interviews, rare stock footage and evocative re-creations shot on locaton in Warsaw. A few years shy of her hundredth birthday when interviewed by director Mary Skinner, Sendler's lucid account of her life and work is a testament to the human capacity for moral courage in the face of depravity and evil during history's darkest times.