“Whoever saves a single life, it is as if he had saved the whole world.” (Talmud)
Today Irena Sendler (Sendlerowa) died. She was 98.
During the WWII she saved about 2,500 Jewish children from Warsaw’s Ghetto. All of them survived the war. She is recognized as “Righteous among the nations” and was nominated for a Nobel Prize in 2007. Her story below.
She was raised in a family, where her father, a doctor, was helping poor Jewish children in a town of Otwock, Poland.
In 1939, after the German invasion, Nazis forbid the offering of help to Jews, but Irena decided otherwise and started to help those who needed it.
In Poland, the population of Polish Jews was estimated at about about 3,000 000 before the war. Warsaw was the largest Jewish city in Europe, with 375,000 Jews. After forming Warsaw Ghetto, non-Jewish Poles were forbidden to enter. In occupied Poland, help offered to Jews in any form was punishable by death, it was the most severe legislation in occupied Europe.
Nazis, being afraid of contagious diseases, gave permits to some Poles to bring minimal medical resources. Irena was a social medical worker and was granted such a permit. That was the door of opportunity that Irena Sendler used to save the Jewish children, who otherwise would end up starving to death, would be killed inside the Ghetto or brought to concentration camps for extermination.
Zegota (Council for Aid to Jews)
During the beginnings of massive deportations from ghetto (1942), Zofia Kossak, Polish writer, published a “Protest” which influenced and united many Poles in the efforts of helping Jews. Fragments of this document:
All perish. Poor and rich, old, women, men, youngsters, infants, Catholics dying with the name of Jesus and Mary together with Jews. Their only guilt is that they were born Jewish condemned to extermination by Hitler.
The world is looking at these atrocities, the most horrible throughout the whole history of mankind, and is silent.
England is silent, so is America, even the international Jewry is silent, usually so sensitive to all harm to their people. Silent are Poles. We are required by God to protest. God who forbids us to kill. We are required by our Christian consciousness. Every human being has the right to be loved by his fellowmen. Blood of the defenseless cries to heaven for revenge. Those who oppose our protest – are not Catholics.
Children in Warsaw Ghetto
Within a few months, an underground Polish organization was formed, called Zegota, which operated under the Polish Government in Exile. Non-Jews and Jews cooperated together, uniting people from many different political backgrounds.as the only government-financed organization in Europe set up specifically to aid Polish government in England was trying desperately to send the news toward the whole world about this situation, and hoping for financial support. The results were not satisfying, but they never stopped in sending funds to help Jews in hiding, even if the sums were humble and not significant. It is estimated that by the end of the war Zegota helped for 40,000 – 50,000 Jews (numbers vary, are hard to determined).
Watch 3 part documentary on “Zegota saved 50,000 Jews from Holocaust” with an extended interview with Irena Sendler:
Irena was directing Children’s Bureau of Zegota, which was responsible for rescuing Jewish children, placing them in safety and caring for them continually. Irena was the planning strategist behind the action. To get one child saved, about ten people were needed, she estimated. People who helped were risking their own and their family lives. Her nickname was “Jolanta”.
No one refused
Newborns and toddlers were smuggled sedated, put in the wooden fruit crates, potato sacks, even coffins, often delivered to the tram driver, who drove the vehicle through the Ghetto to the Polish side of Warsaw or just carried away through the gate.
As unimaginable as it sounds, kids who were 5-6 years old, were putting their bare feet into the shoes of the factory workers and covered with their long coats, marched together, hidden from the factory to the Aryan side. Kids were smuggled through cellars and sewage canals.
Saved children’s documents were falsified of course. Irena was thinking how and where to keep all of the real names of the children, in order to find their families after the war and return them, if possible. She wrote the names of the children on small scraps of papers and was hiding them in glass jars. She kept those jars under an apple tree in a neighbour’s house across the street. She practised throwing the jars outside her window, in case of Gestapo invading her apartment. One day, she heard banging on the door. Frantically she wanted to throw the jar with the names outside, but the whole house was surrounded by the Gestapo. She gave the jar to her visiting friend, who hid it in her underwear.
Warsaw, Ghetto deportation
She was arrested by Gestapo in October 1943, put to the harshest prison, Pawiak and tortured. She couldn’t be broken, and did not reveal any names of people involved in rescuing Jews or any Jewish children’s name in hiding. Her legs and feet were fractured during interrogations.
While in prison, in the midst of the prison’s hey bed, she found a picture of Jesus, known among the Catholic believers as an Image of a Divine Mercy, with the words “Jesus, I trust in you” . She kept this picture and cherished it for years, later on sent it to the Polish Pope John Paul II during His first historical visit to Poland.
Finally she was sentenced for death. On the day of her execution, she was led by a prison guard to the execution square, and unexpectedly released to a crowded street behind the heavy gate. Zegota paid the guard huge bribe to let her go. Her name figured on a list of people killed, she read the announcement herself. Later on, Germans discovered that she was not killed and were pursuing her to the end of the war. She had to live in hiding.
According to Irena, the greatest heroes of these rescue missions were not the rescuers, but the mothers of the children, who intuitively sensed the end of their lives approaching and knew that was the only way for their beloveds to be saved from the horror of extermination. She always wanted to write a story about the Jewish mothers, who had to make such a tragic decision, entrusting their kids in the hands of people whom they would probably never meet. Mothers would ask, what guarantee they had for their children survival. The answer Irena provided was as frightening as the whole world around them: zero guarantee. She couldnt even promise safe smuggling behind the walls of Ghetto.
She personally had oversee about 10 apartments where Jews were hidden. Most of the children were sent to the Catholic convents and orphanages. She said:
“No one has ever refused to take and save a Jewish child from me”
Sometimes they had to change childrens housing. On one occasion she was asked by a small boy: “How many mothers can a child have? This one will be my third one”.
After the war, she recovered the jars with the children’s names and found every child. Most of the parents of the children rescued by Irena died in Treblinka camp.
What was the most frightening moment? When I saw a priest in charge of an orphanage for Jewish children in the ghetto walk with them out to be killed. The children were in their best Sunday suits. The priest was killed with them.
Forgotten. “I did so little”
After the war, Irena turned to helping young girls coming back from concentration camps. She was trying to help foreign girls who were becoming prostitutes in the remaining ruins of Warsaw to get educated and start a new life.
Because of her involvement with the non-communist organizations during the war, she was interrogated. She went to a premature labor, and as a result her son was stillborn.
For the next 50 years the public did not know of her heroic acts. She was still helping some of the rescued Jewish children. She worked as a humble social worker and a school teacher. She did not belong to the Communist Party, and probably that’s why her story was not known, neither published for so long.
Even her own children did not know the details of her rescuing mission. Her own daughter was removed from the list of the University, just one day after passing the entrance exams, and then she asked: “Mom, what have you done in life?”. In those times, any involvement of the parents during the WWII in non-communist organizations in the past was seen as threatening influence to the students evolving political and moral ideology.
In 1965 she accorded the title of Righteous Among the Nations by the Yad Vashem organization in Jerusalem. She was not allowed by Communist authorities to travel then to receive her reward.
In 1967 she was forced to retire, at the age of 57, because she was heard rejoicing after Israel has won the conflict in the region.
She visited Israel in 1983 and in 1991 she was made an honorary citizen of Israel.
Irena in the middle, visiting school in Tel Aviv in Israel in 1983.
To the last days of her life she remembered almost everything. On March 15 2007 Irena Sendler was named a national hero by a Polish Parliament.
“I want the Jewish community to know that there was resistance and a spirit among the Jews in the ghetto.”
Association of “Children of the Holocaust” quotes Irena saying:
In conclusion let me stress most emphatically that we who were rescuing children are not some kind of heroes. Indeed, that term irritates me greatly. The opposite is true – I continue to have qualms of conscience that I did so little.
Irena Sendler’s tree in Yad Vashem
Irena’s story was read by a group of students in Uniontown, Kansas. They decided to make a play called “Life in a jar”. The play is still going on.
The project drew the media attention and students visited Irena Sendlerowa in Poland.
When people form Hollywood came to visit Irena Sendler, hoping to make a movie about her in the future, she ask them:
Make this movie to help Americans understand, what this war really was, what was ghetto like, what kind of fight there was. And that everyone watching it would cry.
Mother of the Holocaust Children
In 2004 first biography of Irena Sendler was published under a title “Mother of the Holocaust Children – The story of Irena Sendler” by Anna Mieszkowska. It was translated into Hebrew and German.
April 2009 Update: The Coragous Heart of Irena Sendler movie
Watch it on YouTube:
May 2011 Update: PBS “In the Name of Their Mothers” program
“In the Name of Their Mothers” documentary web site