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Does “Courageous Heart” Do Justice to Irena Sendler’s Story?

Last updated: February 15, 2023

The much-anticipated TV movie chronicling the life of “female Schindler” Irena Sendler has received a lukewarm response from some critics.

Some Critics Say Movie is Not As Powerful As the Story

Mincing no words, The New York Times Review of “The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler” stated that the film conveyed, “none of the zeal, passion, terror and chaos that her mission involved.” The reviewer also laments that although Anna Paquin, who plays the title role, should be suited to the role, she lacks convinction. The movie does succesfully tell the story of Sendler, for those who are interested from a historical perspective, but as a film it is “weak.”

The Hollywood Reporter concurs that while there are few instances when the terror and truth of the war is successfully portrayed, there are “sadly few” meaningful moments and most of the movie lacks originality. Like the Times, THR praises the drama inherent in Sendler’s story, but says the film does a poor job of telling it. 

There’s more praise to be found in the Variety Review, but if read closely, it seems to focus not on the film, but rather on the drama of the story itself. But unlike other reviewers, Variety does seem to find that the movie sufficiently captures the dramatic tension and risk of Sendler’s brave mission. It also praises the bleak aesthetic of the film, which was shot in Latvia.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette does not agree, claiming the not-quite Latvian set is “too colorful.” The Post-Gazette also expresses concern that not enough emphasis is placed on the atrocities of the war. But the take-home message there: Sendler was an incredibly brave, self-less woman who truly believed that one person could make a difference.

Background: Plans for Movie About Heroine Irena Sendler

On Sunday April 19, CBS is scheduled to air a movie about the story of Irena Sendler, a Polish Catholic social worker responsible for saving 2,500 Jewish children during the Holocaust. Sendler died on May 12, 2008, at the age of 98. The movie, “The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler” is based on Anna Mieszkowska’s 2005 biography, “Mother of the Children of the Holocaust: The Irena Sendler Story.”

April 19, the date the movie airs, is the anniversary of the beginning of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

Biography: Irena Sendler

During World War II, Irena Sendler worked for a unit of the Polish underground, Zegota, which was formed to help Jewish children in hiding. As a health worker, Sendler had access to the Warsaw Ghetto. In 1942 and 1943, she led some 2,500 children—twice as many people as Oskar Schindler—out of the ghetto to safe hiding places, the Jewish Virtual Library explains.

Dubbed the “Female Schindler,” Sendler saved babies and children while wearing a Star of David armband to show solidarity with her Jewish protectorates, wrote the Daily Telegraph in its obituary of Sendler. She was technically a welfare worker, distributing medicine and supplies in the Warsaw Ghetto, but she simultaneously “formulated extraordinary schemes to spirit children to safety,” according to the Daily Telegraph.

Sources in this Story

  • The New York Times: A Female Oskar Schindler of The Warsaw Ghetto
  • Variety: The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler
  • The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: Irena Sendler’s war story is told With heart
  • IMDB: The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler
  • Jewish Virtual Library: Irena Sendler
  • The Daily Telegraph: ‘Female Schindler’ Irene Sendler, who saved thousands of Jewish children, dies
  • The New York Sun: Nobel Prize Is Sought for Polish Heroine
  • The Holocaust: Crimes, Heroes and Villains
  • Life in Jar: The Irena Sendler Project

Sendler came from a Catholic family, and her father, an early Polish Socialist, was a doctor who attended to mostly poor Jewish patients. When Sendler began her work for Zegota, she relied on religious establishments to traffic and protect the children, forging thousands of documents for children who “entered the church as Jews and exited as Christians,” according to The Holocaust: Crimes, Heroes and Villains Web site.

The New York Sun commemorated Sendler with an article describing her achievements and goals during the Holocaust, particularly her desire to keep every child’s real name in the hopes she could restore their identities to them after the war. “Mrs. Sendler stashed the identities of the children she saved in jars and buried the jars under an apple tree. Her plan was to dig up the jars after the war and reunite the children with their families,” according to the Sun.

In October 1943, Sendler was arrested by the Gestapo after a colleague gave away her name while being tortured. Sendler herself was then imprisoned and tortured, but refused to give away any names, either of colleagues or of children in hiding. Sentenced to death, Sendler was saved at the last minute when an associate bribed a German officer, allowing her to escape prison.

Honored for her work years after the war and no longer anonymous, Sendler received calls over the years from many of the children she had helped protect. In 2007 she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize (the award went to Al Gore). Though many knew of Sendler’s work, a play written by four high school girls in Kansas in 1999, “Life in a Jar: The Irena Sendler Project,” is largely responsible for sharing Sendler’s story with a larger audience and helping nominate her for the Nobel Peace Prize,” according to the Web site Life in Jar: The Irena Sendler Project.

Just a year before her death, Sendler was honored as a national heroine by Polish parliament, around the same time as her Nobel Peace Prize nomination. She was also honored with the title “righteous gentile” by the Israeli Holocaust Memoriam Centre, Yad Vashem, according to the Telegraph.

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