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Musical about WWII hero Irena Sendler to be staged in Poland’s Poznań

09.08.2022 11:30
Rehearsals are in their final stages at the Music Theatre in Poznań, western Poland, for a production focusing on the life of Irena Sendler, a Polish woman who saved hundreds of Jewish children from the Holocaust during World War II.
Irena Sendler 2007.
Irena Sendler 2007.PAP/Andrzej Rybczyński

The English-language libretto was written by Polish-born US-based journalist Piotr Piwowarczyk and American filmmaker Mary Skinner, who previously teamed up for an American movie about Sendler, entitled In the Name of Their Mothers.

Piwowarczyk says his meetings with Sendler during the shooting of that film made a profound impact on him.

The music for the new production, entitled Irena, is by Poland’s Grammy-winning jazz pianist and composer Włodek Pawlik, with songs written by Mark Campbell.

In an interview for public broadcaster Polish Radio, Pawlik said the idea for the show had initially been conceived in the United States, "with Broadway in mind," before the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, the closure of New York theatres caused by the pandemic thwarted the original plans, and it was then that the Music Theatre in Poland's Poznań stepped in.

Pawlik, who has gained an international reputation primarily for his jazz work, was asked in a press interview about the presence of jazz in his score.

“I wrote music for an audience for whom musicals stand for wonderful, ear-catching melodies; I was inspired by the music of such masters as Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, as well as Leonard Bernstein and Andrew Lloyd Weber,“ he said, adding that "there are also references to klezmer music, R&B, soul, gospel and tango, but no ecstatic jazz improvisations."  

The libretto was translated into Polish by Piwowarczyk and Lesław Haliński.

The show is directed by Brian Kite, dean of the School of Theater, Film and Television at the University of California in Los Angeles, and the choreography is in the hands of Dana Solimando, whose credits include several Broadway productions.

Irena is due to be premiered on August 27. 

As an employee of the Social Welfare Department of the City of Warsaw during the war, Sendler had a special permit to enter the Warsaw ghetto to check for signs of typhus. Thanks to this, she was able to smuggle Jewish children out of the ghetto and find Christian families and monasteries to take care of them.

Polacy ratujący Żydów są najliczniejszą grupą osób odznaczonych medalem Sprawiedliwy Wśród Narodów Świata. Jedną z uhonorowanych jest Irena Sendlerowa Irena Sendler, pictured in 1944. Photo: PAP/Paul Fearn/Alamy Stock Photo

In 1943, Sendler was arrested by the Gestapo, the Nazi German secret police, tortured and sentenced to death. She was eventually saved from the execution.

Sendler died on May 12, 2008, aged 98. She held the Righteous Among Nations title from the Yad Vashem Remembrance Institute in Jerusalem and honorary citizenship of Israel.

Her honours also included the Order of the White Eagle, Poland’s highest state distinction.

Sendler’s story was rediscovered in 1999 by three American high school girls, who wrote and produced a documentary play about her entitled Life in a Jar.


Click on the audio player above for a report by Radio Poland's Elżbieta Krajewska.