The story of a Roman Catholic woman in Warsaw, Poland who organized the smuggling of more than 2,500 Jewish children to safety from the Nazi ghetto during World War II struck a chord with high schoolers during a screening of Irena Sendler: In the Names of Their Mothers at in Pleasantville today.
"I can't think of a better way to bear witness than through images and words and stories and to bring all of this history alive through the magic and the power of film," said Emily Keating, JBFC's director of education programs.
While Mary Skinner, the film's director and the daughter of a Warsaw war orphan, wasn't able to attend the screening, Keating said she wanted to underscore the message of hope to young people.
The Holocaust and Human Rights Education Center and Westchester Jewish Council helped shape the event on Holocaust Remembrance Day—or Yom HaShoah Holocaust—that was designed to impact youths, who as teacher Virigina Mancini said are "so far removed from it timewise."
"What you are going to see today is going to sadden and disturb you," Rabbi Mark Sameth of told the students from Pleasantville, Westchester Hebrew High School, Solomon Schechter High School and . "This is not going to be easy and so we acknowledge you for being here, having the courage to be here today."
The hour-long documentary introduced the students to Irena Sendler, who at age 29, began working with other social workers in Poland to bring Jewish children from the ghetto to safety in convents, orphanages and even their own homes. The children, often spiteful of the people who took them from their parents they may never see again, were given new names and learned Catholic prayers as they were smuggled under bags of trash or through the city's sewers to temporary homes.
Sendler protected a list of the children's real names with her life, hoping it could be used to reunite the youths with their families after the war. In 1943, after four years of smuggling children, she was arrested and tortured, but survived and lived until the age of 98.
Following the film, students were treated to a talk by Ruth Bachner, a Holocaust survivor who now lives in Somers (click the video to the right to see clips from Bachner's talk). Bachner, who was born in Vienna, discussed her escape during the war.
A candle-lighting ceremony followed, where six candles were lit, each representing one million of the Jews who died during the Holocaust.
Mancini said the day's event came at the perfect time for her 10th grade Advanced Placement (AP) European History class.
"We just talked about the ghettoization of Jews yesterday. They did a reading on it in class," she said. "[The film] certainly brought the horrors of the Holocaust to life."
Mancini added the film's message about being an "upstander" versus a "bystander" fits well into a district-wide initiative addressing bullying.
Deputy Westchester County Executive Kevin Plunkett said echoed this message when he addressed the crowd.
The Holocaust, he said, "is a reminder to all of us—and particularly to you students—that we and you have the ability to change the world for the better if we are committed to rid the world of the prejudices we seek."
He continued, "Getting involved is not always an easy thing to do, but I urge you today to turn to history for guidance. Evil must be stopped before it takes root. You are today's seeds of hope."