April 28, 2014
The Courageous Story of Irena Sendler
Rosa Parks became a household name within days of her courageous stand in refusing to move to the back of the bus. It took over 50 years for another heroine, Irena Sendler, to receive the honors that she was due.
Sendler was a Polish non-Jew who is credited with saving over 3000 Jewish lives in Nazi-occupied Poland. Over 2500 of the lives saved were those of children whom Sendler smuggled out of the Warsaw ghetto and hid amongst sympathetic Poles. Sendler risked her life daily to try to save these children's lives but aside from an awards ceremony that was held in 1963 in Jerusalem naming her a "Righteous Gentile," her bravery went almost unnoticed until, by chance, a group of Kansas schoolgirls saw a brief mention of her actions and decided to investigate.
Sendler lived in Warsaw in 1939. When the Germans invaded Poland she joined the Zagota underground which specialized in helping Jews escape Nazi persecution. Sendler was asked to head Zagota's Children's Unit and she put all of her energies into helping Jewish children elude the Nazis.
When the Nazis built the Warsaw Ghetto in 1940 they interned close to half a million Jews in a small three-square mile radius with little food, water or medicines. Sendler obtained a pass that identified her as an expert in infectious diseases. She was allowed to freely travel into and out of the ghetto.
During her first forays into the ghetto she tried to smuggle food to the starving inhabitants but she quickly saw that these little food parcels made little impact. Together with Zagota, she determined that the best course of action would be to smuggle children out of the ghetto. Sendler began to devise strategies for doing just that. She sedated young children and hid them in luggage or in carts under garbage and barking dogs. She covered the children and brought them out under her legs when she traveled by tram. Older children were led out through sewers and by way of underground tunnels.
Many of the children that Sendler saved were "street children" whose parents had been killed or simply disappeared. Others were children whose parents Sendler had approached to convince them to allow her to take their children to the "free" side of Poland – and to the unknown.
"I talked the mothers out of their children" Sendler told interviewers almost 60 years after the war.
"Those scenes over whether to give a child away were heart-rending. Sometimes, they wouldn't give me the child. Their first question was, 'What guarantee is there that the child will live?' I said, 'None. I don't even know if I will get out of the ghetto alive today."
Once in Zagota's hands, the children were taken to orphanages and convents, or to Polish families, where they lived in hiding. Sendler recorded all of the names of the children on slips of paper which she stuffed into glass jars and buried in her backyard. She hoped that, somehow, they would be able to be reunited with their families, or with the Jewish community, after the war.
In October 1943 Sendler was arrested by the Gestapo who tortured her to try to learn where the children had been taken. Sendler withstood the torture and didn't reveal any information about the children or about her Zagota comrades, but her legs were broken and she was crippled for life.
Sendler's activities were almost relegated to the dustbin of history but in 1999 four schoolgirls in Uniontown Kansas read a short account of her story and decided to research the events for a school project. Their investigations evolved into a long-ranging project which brought them to Warsaw to interview Sendler. Following a presentation of their findings, including a dramatic presentation of Sendler's work, major news networks picked up the story and followed it through with more interviews with the elderly Sendler.
Today interested individuals can learn more about Sendler's activities and the lives that she saved through the Lowell Milken Center run Life in a Jar project which encompasses a book, a website and a dramatic presentation.
It'll bring tears. The good kind.
Thanks to Sol for helping with the post.