"9/11 Changed My Life"

“I spent so many years doing what I ‘should’ do,” says Mary Skinner, who went from financial exec to award-winning filmmaker.

By Helen Zelon
Mary Skinner (right) with Elzbieta Ficowska, rescued as an infant by Irena Sendler’s operation, today Director of the Hidden Children of the Holocaust in Poland

“I had become so inhibited from my corporate training –so careful, so cautious, so hypervigilant – I had to learn to ask, ask, ask,” Skinner says.  Finally, the American Center for Polish Culture, helped to fund her first visit to Poland in 2003 and connected her with Sendler and others who were part of her project.  During nearly eight years of film-making and multiple trips to Poland, she fought bureaucratic snafus and language barriers. She picked up temp work to pay the bills, and spent all her free time on fundraising. In 2006, Skinner’s mother died, without warning, and Sendler died in 2008 while Skinner was still working on the film. But in 2010, on the 100th anniversary of Sendler’s birth, Skinner’s documentary, In the Name of their Mothers, debuted at Warsaw’s Kamienica Theatre.

The film’s reception was “beyond anything I could have imagined,” Skinner says. “But I didn’t feel elated. I was frayed, out of money and scared to death.” In the US, the film was rejected from film festival competitions (a DVD release in Poland broke conventional festival rules), but won multiple European prizes.  Skinner started showing her film at churches, schools and libraries. The philanthropist Tad Taube, a major PBS donor, happened to attend one of the screenings and was so moved that he arranged for Skinner to meet with the head of programming at the local PBS affiliate. That day, Skinner came with a PowerPoint presentation, prepared to make the most important pitch of her life, but as she sat down with the station chief at a polished table surrounded by staffers, he said, “This is a powerful film.  We want to ask you if you will allow us to take it national.” In the Name of Their Mothers had its U.S. debut on Sunday May 1, 2011, Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Skinner has a trove of World War II stories, and is now branching out into educational film projects. Making the film was a way to honor her mother, but it also allowed Skinner to reinvent her own life. She was never meant for a corporate career, she says. “If you’re a daffodil, you can’t bloom a rose,” she said. “You’re a daffodil. It took me a long time to finally embrace that.” 


Find Mary Skinner on Facebook at IrenaSendlerFilm.

HELEN ZELON is a Brooklyn-based writer whose work has appeared in New York, City Limits, Scientific American and Ms.

Read more inspiring 9/11 stories: When Life Forces You to Reinvent

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First Published August 22, 2011

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