The first full-length documentary made about Helena Modjeska


Helena Modjeska was born in Krakow, Poland, on October 12, 1840. She received her only formal education while attending the convent run by the Order of the Presentation Sisters. She was seduced at a young age by one of the family guardians, Gustave Sinnmayer. He later fathered her two children, Rudolph and her daughter Marylka, who died in infancy. As the couple traveled with their acting troupe around the provincial towns of Galicia, Gustave used the stage name “Modrzejewski” while Helena adopted the feminine version “Modrzejewska”. Later, when performing abroad, she anglicized her name to “Modjeska”.

Realizing that her impresario could no longer advance her career, Helena left Sinnmayer, taking their son Rudolf, and returned to Krakow. While engaged in the Krakow theatre, she met the Polish nobleman, Karol Bozenta Chlapowski. They married in 1868 and left for Warsaw where she became the most celebrated actress of the Polish national theatre. Her brothers Jozef and Feliks Benda were also respected actors in Poland. The Chlapowski home became the center of the artistic and literary world. Yet, due to the political situation in Poland and its influence on her work, Helena’s life became unbearable.

In 1876, for personal and political reasons, Modjeska and her family emigrated to the United States with a small group of friends. They purchased a ranch in Anaheim, California, forming a Polish colony of intellectuals. The colonists knew very little about farming and the utopian experiment eventually failed.

Modjeska returned to the stage, debuting in San Francisco with an English version of Adrienne Lecouvreur and reprising the Shakespearean roles that she had performed in Poland. Despite her accent and imperfect command of English, Modjeska achieved great success in her thirty-year career in the United States and abroad.

In 1893 Modjeska was invited to speak in a women's conference at the Chicago World's Fair. She described the hardships of Polish women in the Russian and Prussian-ruled parts of Poland. The Russian tsar banned her from traveling or performing in Russian territory.

Modjeska became known for her support of charitable causes. She had ignited and influenced the careers of many international artists, such as Sienkiewicz and Paderewski. She advanced and uplifted the profession of acting for women.

On April 8, 1909 Modjeska died in Newport Beach, California. Her remains were sent to Krakow to be buried in the city of her birth at the Rakowicki Cemetery.

In 2009 the world celebrated the 100th anniversary of her death, remarkable life and gift to humanity.