Polish Heroines: Irena Sendler

On October 19, 1965 a tree was planted at the entrance to the Avenue of the Righteous in Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. The plaque bore the name: Irena Sendler. For the next 34 years this remained the only public recogni-tion for one of Poland’s most cou-rageous daughters. Her name was not known even in her own country. But the memory of her, the grat-itude lived on in the hearts and minds of over 2,000 Jewish chil-dren, whom Irena saved from the Holocaust.

“You see a man drowning, you must try to save him even if you cannot swim.” Growing up in the town of Otwock, known for its large Jewish community, Irena bore witness to what it meant to live under the system that enforced segregation and encouraged ethnic injustice. A Roman Catholic herself, she got firsthand knowl-edge of the plight if the Jews in the early 20th century Poland. Her father, doctor Stanisław Krzyżanowski, mostly treated poor Jewish people. He died from typhus, contracted during an out-break in 1917 among his Jewish patients. His dedication and com-mitment to help others even at great personal risk had a profound effect on young Irena. Perhaps not surprisingly she eventually chose a career in nursing and social work when she moved to Warsaw in the mid-1930s.

“The world can be better if there’s love, tolerance and humility”. In Warsaw Irena joined the Polish Socialist Party, which fundamen-tal principle of “equal rights for all citizens, regardless of race, nation-ality, religion and gender” she sup-ported vigorously. She backed her beliefs by action. While a student at the Warsaw University she pub-licly protested against the ghetto-bench system that forced Jewish students to sit in a separate section of the lecture halls, under threat of expulsion. Irena defaced her grade card and received a three-year suspension from the University. To risk her student status like that at a time when to be admitted to the University was no small feat for a woman, was unheard of. But evi-dently, commitment to justice for all was stronger than any punishment the system could inflict upon Irena. “Heroes do extraordinary things. What I did was not an extraordinary thing. It was normal”. Irena was only 29 when the Germans invaded Poland. Irena used her position as a social worker at the Warsaw Welfare Department to create false documents for Jewish families and aid them in escaping the occupied city. Poland was the only country in German-occupied Europe where death penalty awaited not only those helping the Jews but their entire families as well. Nevertheless Irena gave assistance to over 3 000 Jews, risking her own life and the life of her mother and husband daily. In November 1940 the Warsaw Ghetto was sealed off from the rest of the city. Irena’s job became almost impossible. But “where’s a will, there’s a way” and Irena Sendler’s will was iron. She managed to obtain a permit that enabled her to enter the ghetto to inspect the sanitary conditions. Once inside the ghetto, she estab-lished contact with activists of the Jewish welfare organization and began to help them, smuggling children and babies out to the Aryan side.

“Every child saved with my help and the help of all the wonder-ful secret messengers, who today are no longer living, is the justifica-tion of my existence on this earth, and not a title to glory”. Irena and the team she assembled to help her found a variety of ingenious methods to smuggle Jewish chil-dren to safety and freedom. They used ambulances a lot: a child could be taken out hidden under the stretcher or if a child could pretend to be sick or was actually very ill, it could be legally removed from the ghetto. The Germans feared typhus, which was common in the ghetto, would spread out and fre-quently allowed evacuation of the sick. Another often used, though highly dangerous method was to get children directly through the “sealed” entrance to the ghetto, if a child could speak good Polish and rattle off some Christian prayers. More often than not Irena smug-gled kids through sewer pipes or other secret underground pas-sages, and in trolleys that carried children hiding in sacks, trunks or suitcases. Irena personally got 400 children out of the ghetto, and spearheaded the escape of over 2000 more. Once out of harm’s way, the children were placed with Polish families and in orphanages throughout the country, with the help of the underground organi-zation Żegota (the Council to Aid Jews). Ms. Sendler’s goal was to return the children to their orig-inal families when the war was over. With that in mind she and her co-workers buried lists of the hidden children in jars in order to keep track of their original and new identities. But alas, almost all the parents of the children Irena saved, died at the Treblinka death camp.

“We are not heroes. I con-tinue to have qualms of conscience that I did so little”. Irena was ulti-mately caught by the Nazi in 1943. She was tortured, beaten, her feet and her legs were broken – but not her spirit. The death sentence Irena received was thwarted by Żegota’s efforts: they bribed her executioner and orchestrated her escape. Irena went into hiding, under an assumed identity, but she still continued to work with Żegota. In 1948 she was imprisoned again, this time by the communist secret police and lost her prematurely born son due to the beatings and torture endured during interroga-tions. Her political views and ties to Poland’s principal resistance orga-nization, the Home Army, meant that her wartime contributions were never recognized under the Communist regime.

For many years Irena Sendler – white-haired, gentle and courageous – was living a modest existence in her Warsaw apartment. The story of this unsung heroine was uncovered for the world by four students at Uniontown High School in Kansas, who in 1999 wrote a play about Irena Sendler, called Life in a Jar. When the students got to meet Irena, one of them said, “I still don’t understand why your heroism wasn’t better known. It’s not fair.” To this, Irena Sendler replied, “Yes, the world is not fair. It is for you to make it more fair”.

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