Irena Sendler – A Real-Life Heroine
I’ve grown weary of stories that routinely misuse the word hero and heroic. It seems to be a description all too commonly applied to acts that have no bearing on the true meaning of the term. Yet there are real heroes among us: men and women who every day save lives with no thought of their own that we rarely hear much if anything about. Heroic deeds are part of what sustain us as human beings, of knowing that there are unselfish people out there who are prepared to do the right thing – even at the cost of risking and sometimes giving their lives up in return.
Sendler was horrified by what she encountered on a daily basis, and took matters into her own hands.
One such real life heroine died last year without much notice. Her name was Irena Sendler (Irena Sendlerowa in Polish) and when she passed on at the age of 98 on May 12, 2008, it was the end of a truly extraordinary and heroic life. For those who have not heard of her, Irena Sendler was a social worker in Warsaw during World War II who saved the lives of 2,500 (and possibly as many as 3,000) Jewish children who would have otherwise perished from starvation, disease or in a Nazi gas chamber.
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Oskar Schlinder, who was made famous by Stephen Spielberg in the film Schlinder’s List, saved approximately 1,100 Jews, yet Irena Sendler, who saved far more, was barely known outside of Poland. Although her story finally began to come to light a few years ago after a dedicated group of high school students in Uniontown, Kansas learned of her story and wrote a play called Life in a Jar, I doubt much was known about her here in the United States until Sunday, April 19, when CBS television aired a Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation called The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler.
Taught by her parents to always do the right thing, Sendler, whose maiden name was Irena Krzyzanowska, was born in 1910 in Otwock, a town fifteen miles southeast of Warsaw. The only child of a physician who was one of the first Polish Socialists, her father exerted a strong influence on her, in no small part for his compassion for his patients, most of whom were Jewish poor he treated. He died from typhus when she was nine, a disease he probably contracted from one of his patients. The lesson she learned growing up that was instilled in young Irena was that one person in this world can indeed make a difference, just as her father had done by example.
When the Nazis occupied Poland in 1939 she was a senior administrator in the Social Welfare Department of Warsaw. Her work of providing for the poor and downtrodden brought her in contact with Jews who faced increasing deprivation and persecution.
By 1942 the Nazis had walled off a sixteen-square block area of the city that earned the infamous name of the Warsaw Ghetto, where some 5,000 people a month died from disease and starvation rations that were not enough to sustain life. Unable by virtue of her job to gain access to the Ghetto, Sendler successfully passed herself off as a nurse.
Granted access to bring food, medicine and clothing, Sender was horrified by what she encountered on a daily basis, and took matters into her own hands by smuggling Jewish children from the Ghetto, often past the very noses of the Germans. Her mission became saving what children she could. Not only did she face the problem of removing them from the Warsaw Ghetto, she also had the difficult task of persuading reluctant parents to let her take their children, knowing that the chances were high that they would never see them again – but that if they remained they would not survive. As a parent, I cannot imagine a more difficult or heart-wrenching choice. Moreover, a great many Orthodox Jews objected to the fact that their children would have to become (temporary) Christians in order to survive. Yet, the awful choice was either to let their children go or condemn them to certain death. The question often asked of Sendler was if she could guarantee they would live. All she could do was to tell the parents that she could guarantee they would die if they did not. A steady stream of children were successfully spirited to safety and given new identities.
To carry out her work, in 1942 Sendler joined Zegota (the code-name give for the Council to Aid Jews), a Polish underground organization that functioned with the support of the Polish Government in Exile, based in London. As the leader of a group of conspirators that numbered twenty-five, nearly all of them women, Irena Sendler arranged forged identity papers reflecting that the children were Catholics. Some were smuggled from the Warsaw Ghetto by various ingenious means: in sacks, toolboxes, coffins, body bags or concealed in vehicles. Once outside the Ghetto they were given sanctuary in private homes with Polish families and in orphanages but most were sheltered in Roman Catholic convents. As Sendler later said, the nuns never turned her down when she brought children to them.
The name of each child and where and to whom it was sent was carefully recorded on pieces of paper that Irena Sendler placed in fruit jars she buried in a nearby garden so that after the war they could be dug up and with the information the children might be reunited with parents that survived the war. Sadly, most of the parents died in Nazi concentration camps like Treblinka and Auschwitz.
Inevitably the Gestapo learned what she was doing and in October 1943 she was arrested, sent to the notorious Pawiak political prison that was taken over by the Gestapo after the occupation. Despite frequent torture that included broken legs and feet Sendler never gave up the names of her colleagues or of a single child. She was sentenced to death but was saved at the eleventh hour when the Zegota managed to bribe a Gestapo officer and she was able to escape after being listed as executed. Although relentlessly hunted by the Germans, Irena Sendler refused to leave Warsaw (in the film she is shown to seek sanctuary in the Polish countryside using false papers) and continued to defy the Germans.
Both Sendler and her precious jars survived the war, after which she was able to locate and reunite the children with whatever family or relatives were still left alive. Yet her incredible story went largely unnoticed. Instead of being honored for her great humanitarian achievements, she was again persecuted, this time by the new Communist government of Poland for having been a part of the Polish government in exile and for helping the Polish Home Army. Sendler was imprisoned and according to her obituary in The Economist narrowly averted a second death sentence. “Both outfits were now reviled as imperialist stooges. In 1948 repeated interrogations by the secret police in late pregnancy cost the life of her second child, born prematurely. She was not allowed to travel, and her children could not study full-time at university. ‘What sins have you got on your conscience, Mama?’ her daughter asked her.” Amazingly, Sendler always felt she had not done enough. When finally recognized in the 1980s by both the Pope and Israel, this humble woman could only say: “I feel guilty to this day that I didn’t do more.”
In 2007 Irena Sendler was finally accorded the honor she richly deserved when both the presidents of Israel and Poland nominated her for the Nobel Peace Prize. She lost out to Al Gore.
The four Kansas school girls who memorialized her in the play Life in a Jar traveled to Poland several times to meet with Sendler, the last time only a short time before her death last year. Staff writer Elaine Woo wrote in the Los Angeles Times, May 12, 2008: “The lesson Sendler taught them was that ‘one person can make a difference,’ Megan Felt, one of the authors of the play, said. ‘Irena wasn’t even 5 feet tall, but she walked into the Warsaw ghetto daily and faced certain death if she was caught. Her strength and courage showed us we can stand up for what we believe in, as well,’ said Felt, who is now 23 and helps raise funds for aging Holocaust rescuers."
Irena Sendler has redefined what the word heroic is all about. Thanks to this great humanitarian 2,500 children were granted the precious gift of life.