TV Review: Irena Sendler's war story is told with heart

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"The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler" -- terrible title, good movie -- tells the true story of a Polish woman who saved the lives of 2,500 children in Warsaw's Jewish ghetto during the Holocaust.

Irena Sendler, who died last May at 98 and was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2005, was a Catholic social worker who passed herself off as a nurse. Convinced that rumors of Hitler's "final solution" were reality, she persuaded Jewish families to entrust their children to her, and she helped to place them with sympathetic families outside the ghetto. (More than one Jewish family is shown making a sort of reverse "Sophie's Choice" -- whether to give up a child to a potential savior or to risk the child's death in the camps.)

"The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler" Hallmark Hall of Fame production"
  • When: 9 tonight, CBS
  • With:Anna Paquin, Goran Visnjic, Marcia Gay Harden.

Sendler's story bears similarities to that of Oskar SchindÂler, the German businessman who helped save 1,100 Jews from the Nazis by employing them in factories in Poland and the Sudetenland (and whose story is told in Thomas Keneally's book and Steven Spielberg's movie "Schindler's List").

Filmed in Riga, Latvia, this Hallmark Hall of Fame production looks right but sometimes feels wrong -- too sanitized, too newly constructed, too brightly lit, and even too colorful. ("Schindler's List" was in black and white.) Mostly, it keeps the horrors of the Holocaust at arm's length. But this, after all, is the story of the heroism of Irena Sendler, based on the book "The Mother of the Holocaust Children" by Anna Mieszkowska, and it is meant to be inspirational. (In the last half-hour of the movie, horrors occur to a leading character, but they are shown with relative discretion.)

Anna Paquin -- who won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for "The Piano" in 1993 -- is an oddly affecting, offbeat actress, and she seems the right choice to play a woman who's able to slip in and out of the Jewish ghetto. She makes Sendler warm, unassuming and real.

Marcia Gay Harden, another Oscar winner (for "Pollock" in 2000), plays her ailing but supportive mother, and "ER's" Goran Visnjic is Sendler's friend who helps her smuggle children from the ghetto.

Paquin has said of the real-life Sendler, "She was extraordinarily strong, and extraordinarily modest. She had no sense of being in any way special or heroic. She was angry about what was happening to the Jews she knew personally, and the thousands more she didn't know. She said the only way she could live through that terrible time was to do something. She felt she had no choice."

At a time when hate crimes and neo-Nazis are in the news, it's important to remind ourselves that one person can make a positive difference in the world. Irena Sendler was surely one of them, and her story is worth knowing.

Jim Heinrich can be reached at or 412-263-1851.


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