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Jewish Journal

A Righteous Role

Anna Paquin stars as Catholic social worker turned Warsaw Ghetto rescuer in “The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler.”

by Naomi Pfefferman

April 16, 2009 | 4:23 am

Paquin as Irena Sendler

Paquin as Irena Sendler

Anna Paquin was 11 when she won an Oscar for her performance in “The Piano” and in her mid-20s when she took the 2009 Golden Globe for her leading role in HBO’s vampire series, “True Blood,” but as she locked up her bicycle on a funky stretch of Abbot Kinney Boulevard the other day, she looked like just another young woman from the neighborhood. “Thanks for schlepping down to Venice,” she said as a greeting.

In person, the 26-year-old Paquin is as cheery and down-to-earth — and at the same time as direct and determined — as her “True Blood” character, a telepathic waitress with a penchant for short shorts and the 173-year-old vampire Bill played by Stephen Moyer, who is also Paquin’s real-life boyfriend. On this day, the New Zealand native wore bicycle shorts, her blonde hair was in a ponytail and her face had no sign of makeup. She was both accessible and upbeat, despite the fact that she had gotten off work from the second season of “True Blood” at 4 a.m., slept a few hours, then had to bike to the interview, since she does not know how to drive.

“No worries,” she said of her schedule. “The rest of the world doesn’t run on vampire hours just because I do.”

Paquin came to discuss her upcoming Hallmark Hall of Fame movie, “The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler,” in which she plays the titular Catholic Polish social worker who organized the rescue of some 2,500 Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto. The movie airs April 19 on CBS.

For 16 months, starting in 1942, Sendler — who was nominated for the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize — organized fellow volunteers in the Polish underground to smuggle children out of the ghetto in sacks and suitcases, in packages and body bags, through sewers and subterranean passages. When the Gestapo arrested and tortured Sendler in 1943, she refused to divulge details of her operation, so they broke her legs and feet, leaving her permanently disabled.

The Hallmark film is not a sweeping saga of the Holocaust in the style of “The Pianist” or “Schindler’s List,” but rather a more intimate drama focused on what must have been Sendler’s most excruciating task: convincing terrified parents to relinquish their children to an uncertain fate.

Paquin says she was drawn to the project not only for the chance to play an inspiring heroine, but also because the part marks a milestone in her own career. “I feel like this is the first time I have ever really played an adult in a film, not just as far as the age indicated in the character description, but in terms of the world in which Irena was living, her interactions with others and the decisions she makes,” the actress said. “I loved not being allowed to act in any way like a child.’”

The movie’s writer and director, John Kent Harrison, said Paquin was his first choice to play Sendler. “Irena was matter-of-fact, almost cold-hearted in her approach to asking parents to give up their children, because in those dire times there was no room for sentimentality,” he said by telephone. “And Anna has a toughness at her center, having started in the business so young. She’s been making movies since she was 9, and, at 26, she’s a veteran.”

Irena Sendler

The third and youngest child of school teachers, Paquin had no acting experience when, on a lark, she accompanied her older sister, Katya, to an audition for “The Piano.” Jane Campion’s lyrical screenplay revolved around a mute piano virtuoso, Ada McGrath (Holly Hunter), who arrives in rural New Zealand as a mail-order bride in the 1850s with her daughter, Flora (Paquin), in tow.  Initially, Paquin caught Campion’s attention because she resembled Hunter, but she won the part over some 5,000 other girls by delivering an intense reading from the script and proved mesmerizing as the precocious, ferocious Flora, who spins fanciful yarns about her dead father, spies on her mother’s illicit trysts and ultimately betrays Ada to her husband.

At the Oscars two years later, Paquin looked adorable in her blue dress and matching cap — as well as stunned — when Gene Hackman called her name as the winner of the best supporting actress category. The saucer-eyed little girl walked to the podium, which she barely was able to peer over, gulping and gasping for a full half minute before gaining her composure to thank Campion, et al. She literally stole the show from her category’s more seasoned competitors, including Winona Ryder (“The Age of Innocence”) and Emma Thompson (“In the Name of the Father”).

It was during that Oscar season that Paquin says she received her first introduction to the subject of the Holocaust, since 1993 was also the year that “Schindler’s List” swept the awards and won for best picture. “We hadn’t studied that period in history yet,” Paquin said of her elementary school in Wellington, New Zealand. “My parents did not allow me to see the movie, but they did explain what it was about.”

After Paquin became the second-youngest Academy Award-winner in history, the actress went on to work with Spielberg, playing the young Queen Isabella II in 1997’s “Amistad.” She has also portrayed troubled sirens in independent films such as “25th Hour” and “The Squid and the Whale” as well as, famously, Rogue in the three “X-Men” films. “True Blood” features similar themes of bias toward the “other,” and Paquin campaigned hard to convince series creator Alan Ball (“Six Feet Under”) to cast her as the telepathic Sookie Stackhouse. The frothy, sexy series operates in part as an allegory for gay rights, featuring vampires as creatures fighting to obtain the right to marry and to live among humans. Paquin has once again proven herself, playing Sookie’s emotions straight, without camping up the Southern or gothic aspects of the story.

Irena Sendler

Anna Paquin and Rebecca Windheim in “The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler.”
Photo by Erik Heinila

In the pilot, Paquin’s character used a heavy chain as a weapon to save vampire Bill Compton from becoming a hate-crime statistic: “The show is fun and fluffy,” the actress said, “but there is also the idea of how we as a society assign a stricter and non-equitable set of rules to particular groups. It is also about how the process of trying to integrate into society as an outside group is messy and ugly, and many people aren’t as open-minded as they should be. In our show, these ideas are presented in this very amusing and fantasy level, but they are completely grounded in our world and how people really behave.

“I’m generally not drawn to projects that work only on a surface level,” she added. “And a topic that unfortunately always seems timely is prejudice. As a species we haven’t overcome it, obviously. It keeps on needing to be addressed, in different ways — in everything from light fantasy to serious drama.”

When her agent sent her Harrison’s screenplay of “The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler,” she was on vacation with Moyer in London last October: “I read it in about an hour on his iPhone, just staring at the screen with my mouth open,” she recalled. “I couldn’t quite believe she was actually a real person. I was just absolutely fascinated and in awe at how someone so young could be so strong in such a terrifying period of time. And I said, ‘OK, where do I sign up?’”

The Piano

“The Piano”

Harrison sent Paquin a rough translation of Anna Mieszkowska’s “Mother of the Children of the Holocaust: The Story of Irena Sendler,” a biography that had been published only in Polish, German and Hebrew, but has not yet come out in English. She “rapidly tore through” it and spent the following two weeks watching movies and reading books on the period: “What I found most powerful and helpful was a book titled ‘Words to Outlive Us: Eyewitness Accounts From the Warsaw Ghetto,’ which is composed of journal and diary entries,” Paquin recalled. “I read about how guards would torture prisoners in front of others to scare them — really horrendous things like tying people up and letting dogs half-eat them; or the sort of ease with which people would be randomly shot. Those eyewitness accounts were as close as I could get to Irena’s world — and what came through strongly was just how absolutely terrified and out of control people felt.”

Sendler’s sympathy for the Jewish plight began when she was growing up in and around Warsaw. Her father was the only physician in their town of Otwock willing to treat Jewish patients during a typhoid epidemic; he himself caught the disease and died in 1917, when Irena was 7.

Sendler followed his heroic example after Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto were sealed off from the rest of the city by 10-foot-high walls. In 1942, she gathered a network of fellow social workers and volunteers — all sympathetic Polish Catholics — and began her operation to save children under the auspices of Zegota, a code name for the Council for Aid to Jews, a program of the Polish government in exile. The social workers were mostly female, which proved helpful because a woman could more easily walk past officials holding the hand of a Jewish child as if he or she were her own, often through corridors of a courthouse leading out of the ghetto to the Aryan side of the city.

After the children were ensconced in temporary housing, they were drilled in Catholic songs and prayers, their black hair was bleached blond and some boys were dressed as girls to trick the Gestapo out of checking to see whether they had been circumcised. The lucky ones received Catholic papers and were placed in a convent, an orphanage or with other rescuers for the duration of the war.

One mother tearfully handed over her infant, Elzbieta Ficowska, who was drugged, placed in a box with a silver spoon and hidden in a truck hauling bricks out of the ghetto; the scene is recreated in the film.

Because Sendler hoped to eventually reunite the children with their parents, she scribbled each one’s name and location on scraps of paper and placed the notes in jars which she buried under an apple tree in an associate’s yard in Warsaw.

True Blood

“True Blood” Photo by John P Johnson

In 1943, the owner of a laundry that served as a safe house betrayed Sendler under torture. On Oct. 20 of that year, Gestapo agents arrested Sendler, tortured her for three months in the infamous Pawiak Prison and then sentenced her to death. Just before her execution, however, an officer bribed by Zegota arranged for her name to appear on a list of prisoners who had already been executed. Sendler escaped, and until the end of the war she continued to help children while living in hiding. Twenty years later, she became one of the first “Righteous Gentiles” to be honored by Yad Vashem. She saved twice the number of Jews as Oskar Schindler, the inspiration for “Schindler’s List.”

In Poland, however, the anti-Semitic communist regime was unimpressed by Sendler’s wartime deeds. She remained in obscurity until 1999, when a group of Kansas high school students came across a short article on her in a 1994 issue of U.S. News & World Report and decided to turn her story into a history project. Because they assumed Sendler had died, the students contacted the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous to locate her grave. Instead they learned she was still living in Warsaw, though ailing and in a wheelchair. The students promptly wrote her a letter, and thus began a friendship that would lead to an interactive play “Life in a Jar,” which the students performed all over the world, making international headlines. They also eventually visited the elderly rescuer.

Harrison wasn’t so lucky; while writing his script in Warsaw last year, he had set up an interview with the 98-year-old social worker, but their meeting was canceled when Sendler was hospitalized with pneumonia; she died on May 12, 2008. Harrison attended the funeral at the Powazki cemetery and watched as Jewish community leaders, survivors, Polish ministers and the Israeli ambassador to Poland turned out to pay their last respects. A rabbi recited the Kaddish, Catholics chanted Christian prayers and Chopin’s “Funeral March” was played during the burial.

Back at the Venice café, Paquin put down her cup of coffee and looked shocked when asked whether actors seek roles in Holocaust-themed films in order to win awards, as charged by The New York Times last year. “That’s not what I find interesting about this kind of work. What is interesting is the chance to portray a strong, powerful woman, because there is such a dearth of such roles. Actresses often end up playing ‘the girlfriend’ or the sex object; I love getting to be a part of a story that has nothing to do with that,” she said.

Even so, when Paquin set off for the three-week shoot in Riga, Latvia, last winter, she did so with trepidation. “I spent the first week terrified that I wasn’t doing a good enough job, because how could you possibly feel [the pain and fear] enough,” she said. “But after a while you have to forgive yourself for not knowing what it’s like to be tortured, and just do the best you can.”

To play Sendler, Paquin at times accessed some of her own feelings about her sister’s recent surgery; the 30-year-old Katya has had three operations so far for a brain tumor.

“It’s that feeling of powerlessness, but at the same time having to buck up and be strong for somebody, because if you’re scared, it doesn’t even compare to how scared they are,” the actress said.

“To play Irena you don’t get to cry, you don’t get to show that you’re frightened. You have to be strong for the children and their parents, and I found that very empowering,” she said.

“For Irena, being frightened of her own death was not the worst thing in the world. Far worse was the dilemma of the parents trying to decide whether to stay with their children or let them go — an almost impossible choice.”

“The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler” airs April 19 on CBS.

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