Wednesday, January 6, 2010
UNSUNG POLISH HEROINE IRENE SENDLER
AN UNSUNG POLISH HEROINE (C)
by Polly Guerin
Dear Ms. Sendler: I address you so formally out of great respect and profound admiration for an amazing woman who saved 2,500 Jewish children during World War II by smuggling them out of the Warsaw Ghetto and providing them with false documents and sheltering them in individual and group children’s homes outside the Ghetto. One wonders how such a woman, the Mother of All Mothers, had the courage to perform this delicate and difficult work right under the surveillance of the Germans. Alas that is a story that deserves further exploration and with your permission I will tell how she evolved and became a national heroine.
A SYMPATHETIC CHILDHOOD
Early on Irena, nee Krzyzanowska, (2.15.1910-5.12.2008), commonly referred to as Irena Sendlerowa, from early childhood sympathized with Jews. A Polish catholic she had reason to align herself with the Jewish community. Familiarity and acquaintance with Jews were a household occurrence. It was the practice of her physician father to regularly treat Jewish patients, but unfortunately he died from typhus, which he had contracted from one them. That however, did not diminish Irena’s rally cause. Later on it was evident that this spirited young woman would show strengths of character that was etched in her upbringing. Once in her lifetime she said, “You cannot separate people based on race or religion.” As a student she opposed the ghetto-bench system that existed in prewar Polish universities and as a result she was suspended from Warsaw University for three years.
THE GERMAN OCCUPATION
It was very risky to aid Jews. A Nazi German poster of the era in German and Polish (Warsaw, 1942) threatened death to any Pole who aided Jews. It was a dire time. An unbelievable period of horror in the annals of wartime history. Not only the rescuer, but all household members’ risked death if they were found to be hiding Jews, but that did not deter Irena. As early as 1939 while working for urban Social Welfare departments during the German occupation of Poland, Irena began aiding Jews. Assisted by some two dozen helpers, she and her team created over 3,000 false documents to help Jewish families aided and abetted by the Zegota, the Polish resistance organization which nominated her by her cover name “Jolanta” to head its children’s section.
ENTERING THE GHETTO
This brave young woman, a beauty by classic standards, was about to fulfill her calling that paved the way to rescue countless children. Fortunately, the Nazis feared the spread of typhus, which they suspected came from the Ghetto and this threat opened the way for Irena to openly enter the Ghetto, as an employee of the Social Welfare Department. As a result she had a special permit to frequently go to the Ghetto to check for signs of typhus. To show her solidarity with the Jewish people, however, during these visits she wore a Star of David so as not to call attention to herself. You can imagine how difficult it must have been to smuggle children out of the ghetto or for the Jewish parents to part with their children. Because of her cover as a social worker she organized the smuggling of Jewish children out of the Ghetto carrying them in boxes, suitcases and on trolleys. She smuggled out babies and small children in ambulances and trams, sometimes disguising them as packages.
PLACING THE CHILDREN
The children were provided with false documents and sheltered in individual and group children’s homes outside the Ghetto. Some children were placed with Polish families, the Warsaw orphanage of the Sisters of the Family of Mary, or Roman Catholic convents such as the Little Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary Conceived Immaculate at Turkowice and Chotomow, and in some cases left in the care of priests in parish rectories. Irena had a clever plan and managed to conceive a unique method of documenting the children’s identities and concealing the information from the Nazis. She hid lists of the children’s names in jars, which she buried in the ground, in order to keep track of their original and new identities. In an effort to comfort the children she assured them that, when the war was over, they would be returned to their Jewish relatives. It was an honorable dream and for some of the child survivors though they most likely were not reunited with their families (most perished in the Treblinka concentration camp) this information would be invaluable to re-establishing their Jewish identity.
IRENA IS ARRESTED
The Nazis were on to Irena’s trail of deception and in 1943, she was arrested by the Gestapo, severely tortured and sentenced to death. It’s a wonder that she survived such brutal treatment as during the interrogation both her arms and legs had been broken. Zegota, the Polish underground, did not desert their comrade. They saved her by bribing German guards and on the way to her execution they left her in the woods, unconscious and near death. After her rescue and for the remainder of the war, she lived in hiding but was listed on public bulletin boards as among those who had been executed. Perhaps it was her youthfulness and healthy countenance that helped her to heal during this time, but Irena’s reserve was strong and her seclusion did not stop her work for the Jewish children. After the war she dug up the jars containing the children’s identities and attempted to find the children and return them to their parents. Sadly this rarely happened. However, in 2005 when Irena was 95 years old she was visited by some of the children she had saved. Her mantra was clear and simple, “You cannot separate people based on their race or religion. You can only separate people by good and evil. The good will always triumph.”
ACCOLADES POUR IN
Although Irena was modest about her role during the war the world was beginning to recognize her finest achievement. In 2003 Pope John II sent a personal letter praising her wartime effort and on October 10th, 2003 she received the Order of the White Eagle, Poland’s highest civilian decoration, and the Jan Karski Award “For Courage and Heart,” given the American Center of Polish Culture in Washington, D. C. The fact that she was not awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 did not daunt the righteous woman. In a letter addressing the Polish Parliament she said, “Every child saved with my help is the justification of my existence on this Earth, and not a title to glory.” In May 2009, Irena Sendler was posthumously granted the Audrey Hepburn Humanitarian Award, named in honor of the late actress and UNICEF ambassador.
LIFE IN A JAR
It is poignant to know that children were the inspiration for Irena’s story gaining worldwide recognition. In 1999 young students in Kansas were so take up with Irena Sendler’s story that they wrote a play called, Life in a Jar, (after her hiding place for documents). Since 2009 there has been over 285 performances of this play which brought the media attention that made Irena Sendler a world-famous icon. He story based on this play was also portrayed in a Hallmark hall of Fame production in 2009. The cast visited Sendler in Warsaw a week before her death. Her final words to them were, “You have changed Poland, you have changed the United States, you have changed the world (by bringing my story to light). Poland has seen great changes in Holocaust education, in the perception of the time and have provided a grand hero for their country and the world. I love you very, very much.” A documentary film by American filmmaker Mary Skinner, “Irena Sendler, In the name of Their Mothers” is planned for worldwide release in 2010. http://www.irenasendlerfilm.com .
And now it is time to say goodbye to dear Irena Sendler whose life is etched in the collective memory of children of the Warsaw Ghetto who were saved by her intervention through love and humanitarianism. You have set an exemplary example of extraordinary courage and noble spirit that inspires and makes us look in awe upon your finest achievement as the amazing woman who rescued over 2,500 children.