'Irena Sendler': A Heroine for the Ages

By John Maynard
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, April 17, 2009

Some 70 years later, stories from the Holocaust continue to horrify and -- once in a while -- inspire.

CBS's "The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler," a masterfully produced made-for-TV movie, does both with its moving depiction of the Polish Catholic social worker credited with saving the lives of 2,500 Jewish children during World War II.

Comparisons to Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List" are inevitable. Like Oskar Schindler, Sendler was appalled by the treatment of Jews in her country and risked her life to save those she could. In Sendler's case, she and a conspiracy of women disguised as nurses smuggled children out of the ghettos of Warsaw, with the consent of their parents, into the homes of non-Jewish Polish families and into convents.

Of course, no TV movie could offer the beauty and complexity of Spielberg's Oscar-winning film, but "Courageous Heart," a "Hallmark Hall of Fame" presentation, is equally engaging on a smaller scale, full of small, poignant moments. In one scene, Sendler comes upon a neighborhood recently ransacked by Nazis. Feathers from torn pillows float down like snowflakes.

Anna Paquin, herself an Oscar winner, portrays Sendler with a quiet determination that at times comes across as a little too restrained. In one of the more effective scenes, she must persuade Jewish elders to go along with the plan to bring the children into non-Jewish households.

"What you are saying is we must teach our children to lie," says one mother.

"To survive, yes," responds Sendler.

The scenes that depict mothers and fathers handing their children over to Sendler are captivating, all these years after the events themselves. As they should.

The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler (two hours) airs Sunday night at 9 on Channel 9.

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