There are many heroes of the Holocaust. One of the most famous is Oskar Schindler. However, there are many unsung heroes of the Holocaust as well, whose stories are only recently coming to light. I would like to share one such story with you, even though she never wished to claim the title “hero.”
Polish-born Catholic social worker Irena Sendler was part of the Polish Underground during World War II in German-occupied Warsaw. A sympathizer with the Jews previous to the war, she was suspended from Warsaw University for three years for opposing the prewar ghetto-bench system (the official segregation of the seating of students). With the German invasion of Poland, she began her underground efforts. She joined Zegota (The Council to Aid Jews) using the code name “Jolanta,” and was appointed to head its children’s section. Since she worked with the country’s Social Welfare Department, Irena got special permission to enter the Warsaw Ghetto on a daily basis to check for typhus, which the Germans were fearful would spread beyond the ghetto’s borders. She brought in illegal supplies for the suffering Jews.
A young mother herself, Irena faced the difficult task of talking Jewish parents into giving up their children, knowing that the only other option was death. She networked with other social workers (who happened to be mostly women) to smuggle babies and children out of the ghetto in toolboxes, coffins, suitcases, burlap sacks, trolleys, her ambulance, and through the sewers and other outlets within the ghetto. With help, she placed them in families, orphanages, and convents. She obtained forged papers for the children and even diverted German occupation funds to support the children in hiding, obviously at great personal risk. She encoded the children’s Jewish and new Polish identities on pieces of paper and placed them in a jar that she buried in the backyard of a co-conspirator.
Even when she was caught and tortured by the Gestapo, Irena never gave in. She was sentenced to death but rescued at the last moment by a member of Zegota, who bribed a guard to secure her freedom. After the war, she dug up the jar she had buried, now filled with the identities of 2,500 children, hoping to reunite them with their relatives, most of which had been executed. The new Communist government persecuted and imprisoned Irena, suppressing any recognition of her and other courageous anti-fascist partisans (who were mostly anti-Communist as well). Irena’s story was forgotten for a time, but in 1999, three teenage girls researched her story for a high school project after reading a short article on her in a 1994 U.S. News and World Report. When they discovered she was still alive and living with relatives in a modest apartment in Warsaw, they wanted to meet her. Their visit with her and the play they wrote about her rescue efforts called “Life in a Jar” helped the world to finally open its eyes to Irena’s efforts and sacrifice. Her story has been spreading ever since.
In 2007, a considerable amount of publicity surrounded Irena’s nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize. Although she did not receive it, in that same year Irena was officially honored as a national heroine by the Polish parliament. She could not attend, but one of the children she had saved, now grown, read a letter from Irena to those present. “Every child saved with my help is the justification of my existence on this Earth, and not a title to glory,” she wrote. “Over a half-century has passed since the hell of the Holocaust, but its spectre still hangs over the world and doesn’t allow us to forget the tragedy.” Irena passed away in May of 2008 at the age of 98.
I am amazed. A woman with such a difficult task set before her would have to have astonishing stamina on so many levels—mental, emotional, physical, spiritual…A fitting tribute to her is impossible to write. But I feel that one of the most important things to remember about Irena’s story is how the efforts of one person can change thousands and thousands of lives. The children she rescued will ever be grateful, and their children’s children as well. I will ever be grateful to women and men who, like Irena, courageously stand for right even when so much of the world chooses merely to stand by. Thank you, Irena, for helping us to never forget. I cannot thank you enough.
For more information about Irena Sendler, visit http://irenasendler.org/ or read her 2005 biography by Anna Mieszkowska called Mother of the Children of the Holocaust: The Irena Sendler Story.
Irene, young at left, and in 2005 at right