|When 450,000 Polish Jews were herded into a ghetto awaiting to be killed, others turned their backs or accepted it.|
Irena Sendler couldn't turn her back.
Some of the greatest acts of courage and mercy have been by people who many would have falsely seen as law breakers. In the Bible the Hebrew midwives would have been seen as this, but they recognised a higher law than Pharaoh. In America, we had examples of this with the underground railroad. During World War II, many men and women recognised there was a higher law than Hitler. One of the heroic women that risked her life to save over 2000 Jewish children and acknowledged a higher law than man's law was Irena Sendler.
Irena was a Polish social worker who saw the unmet needs and the deplorable condition of the Jews who were locked inside the Warsaw Ghetto which was erected in 1940. Her parents taught her that if you see someone drowning you jump in to help even if you can't swim. Her father was a doctor and was ridiculed for treating Jews that had typhoid, and later died from the disease when she was nine years of age. When she learned the intent of the Nazis to kill the Jews she sought to get what children she could out of the ghetto and into homes where they would be "safe."
Her efforts to save the children were calculated and ingenious. She started taking the children out in an ambulance. Most of the children that she found homes for were already out of the ghetto, but Irena made some valiant efforts to get children out of the ghetto. She would get children out of the ghetto through sewer tunnels, in body bags, garbage cans, potato sacks, and even in broad daylight. One boy remembered hiding by a gate in darkness as a Nazi soldier made his rounds down a street. After the soldier passed he counted to 30 and to run into the street to where a manhole was opened to him and he was taken into sewer tunnel and brought to safety. Many escaped from a courthouse building that had an exit outside of the ghetto.
Every part of the operation was fraught with difficulty. There was the looming crisis of Jews being daily rounded up to be taken to a death camp. There were parents that had the difficult choice of letting their children go into the hands of strangers that they "might" survive. Then there were the Polish families that put their lives in jeopardy by adopting these hated children . Irena was putting her life at risk as the punishment for helping Jews in Poland was death. In 1943, Irena was found out after the owner of one of her meeting places revealed her name while being tortured. Irena's turn of testing came when the Nazis brutally tortured her which led to her legs and feet being broken. She was the only one who knew the whereabouts of the families that took the children in, but she would not betray the others in the rescue network or the children in their care. It's been said that they could break her bones, but they couldn't break Irena Sendler. She was sentenced to death, but the group she worked with to save the children bribed the executioner last minute to release her and she went into hiding until the end of the war. Public bulletin boards gave the announcement that she had been executed. She continued to help with rescuing the children even while in hiding.
A promise was made that the children would be returned to relatives after the war. Irena took this promise seriously, and kept a careful record of the children's Jewish names and the new Christian names they were given to protect them. These names were put in a jar and buried in a garden near an apple tree. After the war she sought to reunite the children to parents and relatives, but the vast majority of their families were killed. The cries of the parents who couldn't bear being parted from their children haunted her for many years. "In my dreams," she said, "I still hear the cries when they left their parents."
Irena helped a number of adults escape the ghetto before she joined the rescue network for children. It is believed that she helped around 500 adults without the help of the organized network called Zegota. One young man she helped rescue married her after the war.
Her efforts largely went unnoticed for many years after the war. There was a business man, Oskar Schindler, who gained worldwide recognition for hiding 1200 employees during the war. Irena didn't have the money or contacts like the businessman, but saved over double the people. People started to know more about her after a group of young people put together a play that was about her. In 1997 she became a candidate for the Noble Peace Prize. She did not win as she did not meet all the qualifications. Al Gore won that year for a film about global warming. Being a candidate for the Noble Peace Prize brought a lot of people to her door. She expressed that she was weary of all the attention. "Every child saved with my help is the justification of my existence on this Earth," she said, "and not a title to glory." She didn't look at herself as a hero but saw her actions as normal and needed. "I could have done more," she said, "This regret will follow me to my death."
Irena Sendler leaves a message to us of what one person can do. Marek Edelman, the last surviving commander of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, said "People who stand up for others, for the weak, are very rare," Marek Edelman, the last surviving commander of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, told Polish television. "The world would have been a better place if there were more of them."
young people who made the play "Life in a Jar,"
brought her life out of obscurity.