Lena: My 100 Children (1987)
Director: Edwin Sherin.
Starring: Linda Lavin (Lena Kuchler-Silberman), Torquil Campbell (Harold), Lenore Harris (Bella), Cynthia Wilde (Rhea), George Touliatos (Polonski), Susannah Hoffman (Maria), John Evans (Sani), Sam Malkin (Stefan), Vicki Wauchope, Megan Fahlenbock (Hanka), Adam Kositsky (Saul), Robert Haiat, Andrew Adolphus, Geoffrey Boving (David), Sean Roberge.
a woman adopts 100 Jewish Holocaust orphans, but then her problems of defending the children gets really tough
Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of the entire movie.
Poland. Lena looks for the name of her sister on piece of paper on the bulletin board containing the names of known survivors of the concentration camps. She does not find her name.
1945 Krakow. The war ended. Most Polish Jews did not survive. There is a lot of activity inside and outside the Jewish Refugee Center. A man comes over to Lena and asks her if she has her (he shows her a photo). No. Lena then shows him a photograph of her sister and asks him if he has seen her. She was fighting with the Partisans. No.
Lena sees some orphans sitting against a wall. She goes over to speak with them. Lena is worried about the children, so she tells them to come with her. They go into the Jewish Refugee Center. The director says that he cannot help the children. There is not enough money and not enough space. But Lena persists in asking for some type of help. So the director sends her to the third floor. There she finds more than 90 children in a large room just sitting around. When the kids find out that she has some candy they mob her. She is shaken up so badly by the situation and the mobbing hat she has to retreat sobbing.
At home Lena's husband Stefan notices that she is upset and asks her is she is all right. It is Lena's birthday, but she is not in much of a mood to celebrate. The attendees pressure her into playing the piano, but she can't finish even one tune because she is too upset about the orphans. She tells everyone that there are children starving at the refugee center: "I cannot stand by and do nothing."
The next day Lena returns to the center and the children. She brings food for all. They start to mob her but she quickly raises her voice and demands order. The children obey. One of the children won't approach her for the food. He was hidden inside a wall from the Gestapo and it has had its negative effects on the child.
At home her husband wants Lena to work on her doctorate to get it done. But she tells her husband: "My mind's no good. I can't concentrate." Stefan says to her: this "won't bring you own child back." She replies: "I know that." One of the big problems is that no one wants Jewish children. Everyone who hid the children during the war are now bringing them into the refugee centers. She asks some of the refugees at the center if they would help her with the children, but she gets no volunteers.
Lena turns to the army for help. The man in charge says that he has nothing left to give her, but she still inquires about more food for her children. Finally, a Colonel Krusler (? spelling) says that he has 2,000 kilos of sugar. He adds that sugar is very valuable on the black market. But Lena will have to transport the sugar herself. Lena then asks for and gets some soap for the children. When she reports to the center director, he enthusiastically hugs her.
A non-Jewish woman turns in to the center a little blonde girl named Mary. She had been promised by the parents that she would be reimbursed at the end of the war. This, however, proved impossible since the parents never returned from the concentration camps. The director gives her two sacks of sugar and the woman goes away happy. Lena and Mary almost immediately form a bond with each other. Mary wants a mother and Lena wants a girl to substitute for her deceased daughter. (Her daughter was turned into the Gestapo and shot to death.)
Lena has a problem of survivor's guilt. Why should she be chosen to survive? She is no more worthy than thousands of others. Someone finally tells her: "There is no shame in surviving." A woman named Bella finally volunteers to help Lena, who proves very grateful for her assistance.
A young girl named Irma is being pulled down the street by a man who is being chased by a lot of hostile people. The man makes it just in time into the Jewish Refugee Center. The crowd starts to tear down the fences around the place. But the boys inside fill some bottles with water and threaten the mob with their "gasoline" bombs. The crowd reluctantly leaves. The man dragging the girl says that the girl is his daughter, who was forced to separate from her parents. She was then brought up as a Catholic. No one really knows just what to do until someone says that they should give the girl enough time to adjust to the fact that her father is a Jew, not a Catholic as she thought. One of the smartass older kids gives Lena a hard time. This time he objects to not insisting that the girl be brought up Jewish. He says: "You humiliate every Jew here." Lena tells him: "I too became a Catholic in the war" in order to survive.
The mob actions convinces Lena that they must move to a safe place in the country. They are to go to Zakopoty in the mountains. Lena is warned that there will be a lot of anti-Semitism there. She is willing to take her chances. They put the children into trucks and drive them into the country. (One panicked young orphan is retrieved by the wise ass older kid.) A lot of the older boys refuse to go with them. They want to be on their own.
At their new quarters, the children have beds, towels and lots of other amenities they were denied at the center. The orphans will be educated at the public school. The staff starts training the kids for the exams to qualify them for entrance into the school. (Some of the locals warn Lena that the children will face a lot of anti-Semitism at the school.)
Lena has to work hard at getting enough food and medicine for her orphans. An activist named Rhea visits Lena. She explains that the goal of the children should be to resettle in Palestine. But Lena feels that would be too much for her scared kids to handle. Lena goes into town to ask the only doctor to come out to visit her children. The doctor, however, is very afraid of the reaction of the locals. He won't cooperate.
The Catholic Irma's father comes for his daughter. This time Irma is ready to leave with him.
Lena receives a letter from the school. It says that the teaching staff declines to prepare the qualification exams for the Jewish orphans. Lena goes in to speak to the district superintendent for education. He calls the staff to a meeting at which Lena is present. He says the letter is a disgrace to Lena, the kids and the entire country. The teachers will prepare the exams or be fired from their jobs. Back at the orphanage, some more of the older boys decide to leave. Lena is upset but says to a staff member: "I can't keep them here forever; I'm not their real mother."
Lena with the school-age children following behind her return to the orphanage following the qualifying exams. She shouts to the staff and the smaller kids: "Everyone gets in!" But it is still not going to be easy. Some tough guys from the school stand in front of the school door to prevent the orphans from entering. But there is not enough of them to stop all the orphans from going in, so they relent. But after school, a huge group of kids wait for the orphans to appear. The orphans have to fight their way through the prejudiced kids. The orphans get the worst of it because there were many large boys with the public school group. The Jewish kids have to stumble home. One bright spot, however, was that the doctor has come to help out with the children's wounds.
But worse is to come. There is a rock throwing incident at night at the school. This scares the kids and staff and slows the kids' emotional recuperation. A report comes in that a group of armed men will descend on the school and destroy it. This is serious stuff. Lena tries to get help from the army. They say a civil war is on and they cannot spare a single man. They will, however, give them weapons, including a machine gun and grenades. With the help of the children, they fill up sand bags with dirt and place them around the school. Then they set up gun positions. In addition, they have lookouts set up along the top of the school. One night they spot a group of horsemen armed with rifles coming onto the school grounds. They set up and prepare for a charge. But the school forces open up on the men with their weapons. So many of the horsemen are killed or wounded that they are forced to run away.
The attack on the school by armed men scares Lena so bad that she decides she has to take the children to Palestine. She has two options: France or Sweden. She chooses France because it is closer to Palestine. Rhea advises Lena on what to do. A train will wait for them in Czechoslovakia just across the Polish border. The train will take them across the country to the next border check. Lena refers to this flight as their Second Exodus. On the trip the kids never complain. When horsemen approach them, everyone gets off the road fast enough to hide from the horsemen behind hills or other places.
They reach the Polish border with Czechoslovakia. They give the guards some bribes (vodka and some money) and they are let through. The train is just across the border. At one check point in Czechoslovakia all their passports are taken and showed to the the man in charge of the guards. He reports to Lena that the passports are obviously fraudulent. They will be sent back to Poland. But Lena asks the children to stomp their feat in defiance. This, combined with the chief's heart's melting over seeing the pretty little blonde Mary and the wise guy kid saying they won't go back, makes the chief decide to let them proceed onwards.
They had a tough time reaching France. For the next two years they stayed there. In the summer of 1948 they finally reach home in Palestine.
The movie is dedicated to Lena Kuchler-Silberman (January 28, 1910 to August 6, 1987).
Good movie. The kids are real cute and since children are involved there are a lot of emotionally moving scenes in the film. The depth of the prejudice in Poland was very well illustrated in the movie. Even after the Jewish families had gone through so much horror, they were still persecuted after WWII. Linda Lavin as Lena Kuchler-Silberman was perfect for the part. She was tough but loving in the portrayal. There were also a lot of good performances from various children. (My wife liked the movie too.)
Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.
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