Set in WWII-era Poland, ‘Joanna’ is moving, tragic tale for love of a child

By Cate Marquis, Special to the Jewish Light

“Joanna” is a haunting drama about a Polish Christian woman who shelters a Jewish girl in Krakow during World War II.

Six-year-old Jewish Roza (Sara Knothe) and her mother (Joanna Gryga) have come out of hiding briefly in occupied Poland, so the little girl can have a special birthday treat at a nearby cafe. When word spreads that Nazis are coming to raid the cafe, her mother sends Roza across the street to hide in a church, telling her to wait there. The next morning, a young woman named Joanna (Urszula Grabowska), who has come to the church to pray, finds the little girl asleep on the floor. Joanna, who worked at the now-shuttered cafe, guesses what happened and yet, despite the risk to herself, takes the little Jewish girl home with her, promising to look for her missing mother.

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This chance event has profound, life-changing results for both the little girl and Joanna. Joanna married her Polish officer husband only a few months before he was sent to prisoner of war camp, and she has now been waiting a long time for some word about him. She takes Roza to the spacious apartment the couple had rented for the big family they planned to have. While Joanna looks for a new job and information on Roza’s mother, she and the little girl grow close. Knowing the risk of sheltering a Jewish child, Joanna tells no one about Roza, not even her kindly, anti-Nazi parents (Halina Labonarska and Leszek Piskorz) or sister Ewe (Izabela Kuna). Eventually, Joanna comes under the scrutiny of her building’s nosy landlady and then Nazi authorities, who covet her large apartment. Yet Joanna goes to even greater lengths to protect Rosa, despite the risks she faces and personal sacrifices she endures.

The film is a well-acted, well-told tale of the Righteous of the Nations, from Polish director Feliks Falk. The beautifully photographed and directed film is a tragedy examining the moral dilemma of someone making the right choice but with dire consequences. Joanna’s determination to keep her secret puts her in danger even from those who would be sympathetic if they knew the truth. This intelligent and moving tale has the structure of a classic tragedy, leaving audiences both inspired and heartbroken by its end.      

Both little Sara Knothe and Urszula Grabowska give affecting performances, creating a parent-child like relationship that is touching and believable. Joanna bonds quickly with sweet Roza, reflecting the older woman’s longing for a child of her own. Joanna proves to be an excellent parent with her warmth and care. She finds toys for the little girl, and teaches and reads to her. The warmth of their relationship increases the poignancy of the difficulties they endure together and separately.

 “Joanna” is a moving historical drama, a story of parental love and sacrifice for a child, of the willingness of some to go to any length to do the right thing.