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Irena Sendler (née Krzyżanowska) is a Catholic social worker who has sympathized with the Jews since her childhood, when her physician father died of typhus contracted while treating poor Jewish patients. When she initially proposes saving Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto, her idea is met with skepticism by fellow workers, her parish priest, and even her own mother Janina.
Using forged identification to present herself as a nurse to guards at the entrance to the enclave where the Jewish population has been sequestered, Irena tries to convince the parents of young children to allow her to smuggle them out to safety. Many fear they will never see them again, and she assures them she will document where each child is sent to facilitate their reunion with their parents once the war is over. Others bemoan the fact their children will be raised in a faith other than their own and forget their religious beliefs and traditions, but Irena convinces them this is a small price to pay in exchange for keeping them alive.
Among those helping Irena is Stefan, a Jewish friend from her university days. He is aware of a few overlooked exits from the ghetto and uses this knowledge to help Irena and others involved with the underground organization Żegota plan their strategies and devise routes to smuggle the children, some in boxes hidden under bricks on wheelbarrows, others through sewer systems, and still others brazenly escorted through the front door of the city hall hand-in-hand with their savior.
Eventually Irena is arrested by the Gestapo and placed in captivity, where she undergoes interrogation accompanied by torture. However, she refuses to name those who helped her. She is sentenced to death by firing squad, but at the last moment a guard, bribed by the Polish Home Army resistance movement, frees her. After briefly visiting her ailing mother, Irena is taken to a remote rural farm, where she is reunited with Stefan.
In an epilogue, we learn Irena and Stefan eventually married and she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007. In a taped interview, real-life Irena discusses her wartime efforts and pays tribute to the mothers who selflessly agreed to separate from their children and the women who provided them with a safe haven.
Actors: Anna Paquin, Goran Visnjic, Marcia Gay Harden