My mother sent me an email today about Irena Sendler.
Haven't heard of her? Not a surprise. Indeed, it wasn't until four high school students in Kansas decided, in 1999, to enter the National History Day
program that Irena's story rose from obscurity to worldwide notice.
Born in Otwock, Poland in 1910, Irena lost her father when she was 7. He was a doctor whose patients were mostly poor Jews, and he died of typhus contracted from his patients. Reportedly the only doctor willing to treat these people, his dying words to his daughter were: "If you see someone drowning, you must jump in and try to save them, even if you don't know how to swim." Irena took this to heart, which caused her to be suspended from Warsaw University for three years in the 1930's when she protested the segregation of Jewish students in the classroom by crossing over and sitting on the 'wrong' side of the room.
Irena took a job with the Warsaw Social Welfare Department, eventually rising to the position of senior administrator. Having a position of power within an organization that ran soup kitchens and provided financial assistance to the needy throughout Warsaw put her in a unique position to help Jewish families when, in 1939, Germany invaded Poland. She and her helpers risked death by creating over 3,000 forged documents creating Christian identies for Jewish families so they could receive medical and financial assistance.
As we know, things only continued to get worse in Poland. In 1940, the Warsaw Ghetto
was created, putting roughly 400,000-450,000 people within an 18 block radius of the city. Contagious diseases such as typhus helped keep the population at roughly the same number no matter how many newcomers were added to the sealed community.
The Zegota (Council to Aid Jews) was formed in December 1942. Because Irena was allowed access via her job with the welfare department to access the ghetto, she was nominated to head up the child's division of this new secret organization. She accepted the position, and for the next year she and about a dozen helpers rescued 2500 children from the Warsaw ghetto, smuggling them into private homes, orphanages, and a convent outside the ghetto walls. Kids were snuck out in toolboxes, body bags, sacks, sewers, and more. The children were adopted by other families with the promise and understanding that, when possible, the kids would be returned to their families after the war.
Sadly, heartbreakingly, in many cases this was not possible as there were so few survivors. Most of the parents died at the Treblinka death camp
Irena kept careful track of all the childrens' names - true as well as adopted/false names - in coded lists that she hid within jars and buried in a neighbor's backyard.
In 1943, the perhaps inevitable happened: Irena was arrested by the Gestapo. Questioned and tortured, she had her feet and legs broken so badly that she would need crutches and/or a wheelchair for the rest of her life. She never betrayed her co-conspirators, nor did she give the Germans information about the children.
She was sentenced to death.
However, the Zegota bribed her would-be-executioner, who allowed her to escape. Irena went into hiding for the rest of the war, still continuing to try to help the Jews when and if she could.
After the war was over, Irena used her secret lists to try to reunite children with their families. She was persecuted by the Communists when Poland fell under Soviet rule and put into jail. After her release, she continued on as a social worker, largely forgotten by history, with the exception of being honoured by Yad Vashem
as a 'Righteous Gentile' in 1965, which was confirmed by the Israeli Supreme Court in 1983.
...And then four teenagers in Kentucky found mention of her in a news article and decided to make her the focus of their research project.
Part of their effort involved the writing of a play, "Life in a Jar," (Check the website
for info about when and where to catch the production.) as well as trips to Poland to interview Irena, who had this to say:"I was stunned and fascinated; very, very suprised; interested." In one of Irena's first letters to the girls, she wrote, "My emotion is being shadowed by the fact that no one from the circle of my faithful coworkers, who constantly risked their lives, could live long enough to enjoy all the honors that now are falling upon me.... I can't find the words to thank you, my dear girls.... Before the day you have written the play "Life in a Jar" -- nobody in my own country and in the whole world cared about my person and my work during the war ..."
It is because of the work done by these high school students that the world was made aware of the remarkable work and bravery of this remarkable woman.
"Heroes do extraordinary things. What I did was not an extraordinary thing. It was normal."
"After the Second World War it seemed that humanity understood something, and that nothing like that would happen again. Humanity has understood nothing. Religious, tribal, national wars continue. The world continues to be in a sea of blood. The world can be better, if there's love, tolerance, and humility." http://www.irenasendler.org/http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irena_Sendlerhttp://www.auschwitz.dk/Sendler.htmhttp://richards-creations.net/Pages/8/_Irena-s_Children.htmlhttp://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Irena_Sendler
(Thank you, Mom, for telling me about this incredible woman!)