Tuesday, June 30th, 2015

Irena Sendler

“Extraordinarily bold, altruistic, and determined” are a few of the words found in Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary to describe a hero. These words truly describe Irena Sendler, but, when taken in the context of her achievements, seem wholly inadequate. How do people like Irena Sendler happen? They may be everyday people who become EVERYDAY HEROES, but they are much more than that. They are epic heroes who should never be forgotten and who should be recognized from generation to generation as special human beings who risk everything to save others. That’s what Irena Sendler did . . . over and over and over again. And every time she saved one person, she risked death for herself and her family members.

I encourage you to read on about this epically heroic woman and then ask these questions: Where do individuals like Irena Sendler come from? What makes them defy ultimate danger? What makes them sacrifice for others above self?

Irena Sendler was born as Irena Krzyżanowska on 15 February 1910 near Warsaw, Poland. Her father died in February 1917 from typhus contracted while treating patients. After his death, Jewish community leaders offered to help her mother pay for Sendler's education, though her mother declined their help. Sendler studied Polish literature at Warsaw University.

Sendler moved to Warsaw prior to the outbreak of World War II and worked for municipal Social Welfare departments. She began aiding Jews soon after the German invasion in 1939 by leading a group of co-workers who created more than 3,000 false documents to help Jewish families. This work was done at huge risk, as — since October 1941 — giving any kind of assistance to Jews in German-occupied Poland was punishable by death, not just for the person who provided help but also for their entire family or household. Poland was the only country in German-occupied Europe in which such a death penalty was applied.

In August 1943, Sendler, by then known by her nom de guerre Jolanta, was nominated by Żegota, the underground organization also known as the Council to Aid Jews, to head its Jewish children's section. As an employee of the Social Welfare Department, she had a special permit to enter the Warsaw Ghetto to check for signs of typhus, a disease the Germans feared would spread beyond the Ghetto. During these visits, she wore a Star of David as a sign of solidarity with the Jewish people. Under the pretext of conducting inspections of sanitary conditions within the Ghetto, Sendler and her co-workers smuggled out babies and small children, sometimes in ambulances and trams, sometimes hiding them in packages and suitcases, and using various other means.[

Jewish children were placed with Polish families, a Warsaw orphanage, or at Roman Catholic convents such as the Little Sister Servants of the Blessed Virgin Mary Conceived Immaculate. Sendler worked closely with a group of about 30 volunteers, mostly women.

According to American historian Debórah Dwork, Sendler was "the inspiration and the prime mover for the whole network that saved those 2,500 Jewish children." About 400 of the children were directly smuggled out by Sendler herself. She and her co-workers buried lists of the hidden children in jars in order to keep track of their original and new identities. The aim was to return the children to their original families when the war was over.

In 1943 Sendler was arrested by the Gestapo and severely tortured. The Gestapo beat her brutally, fracturing her feet and legs in the process. Despite this, she refused to betray any of her comrades or the children they rescued, and was sentenced to death by firing squad. The underground organization Żegota saved her life by bribing the guards on the way to her execution. After her escape, she hid from the Germans, but returned to Warsaw under a fake name and continued her involvement with the Żegota. During the Warsaw Uprising, she worked as a nurse in a public hospital, where she hid five Jews. She continued to work as a nurse until the Germans left Warsaw, retreating before the advancing Soviet troops.

After the war, she and her co-workers gathered all of the children's records with the names and locations of the hidden Jewish children and gave them to a Żegota colleague and his staff at the Central Committee of Polish Jews. However, almost all of the children's parents had been killed at the Treblinka extermination camp or had gone missing.

In communist Poland

After the war, Sendler was imprisoned from 1948-1949 and brutally interrogated by the communist secret police due to her connections with Poland's principal resistance organization (AK), which was loyal to the wartime Polish government in exile. As a result, she gave birth prematurely to her son, Andrzej, who did not survive. Although she was eventually released and agreed to join the communist party, her ties to the AK meant that she was never recognized for her heroism during the war. In fact, in 1965 when Sendler was recognized by Yad Vashem as one of the Polish Righteous among the Nations, Poland's communist government did not allow her to travel abroad at that time to receive the award in Israel; she was able to do so only in 1983. She was later employed as a teacher and vice-director in several Warsaw medical schools, and worked for the Ministries of Education and Health. She was also active in various social work programs. She helped organize a number of orphanages and care centers for children, families and the elderly. However, she was forced into early retirement for her public declarations of support for Israel in the 1967 Israeli-Arab War. Sendler resigned her communist party membership in 1968.

In 1980 she joined the Solidarity movement.

Irena Sendler's achievements remained largely unknown to the world until 1999, when students at a high school in Uniontown, Kansas, along with their teacher Norman Conrad, produced a play based on their research into her life story, which they called Life in a Jar. It was a surprising success, staged over 200 times in the US and abroad and significantly contributed to publicizing Sendler's heroic acts worldwide. The play was adapted for television as The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler (2009), in which Sendler was portrayed by actress Anna Paquin. She subsequently received numerous awards for her deeds during WWII.

In the years 2006, 2007, and 2008 she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, but never received the prize. Irena Sendler lived in Warsaw for the remainder of her life and died on May 12, 2008, aged 98, and is buried in Warsaw.

I asked you above to ask several questions about Irena Sendler and people like her. I would also ask you to consider how this glorious, heroic woman could be turned down for the Nobel Peace Prize while it is given to politicians who have accomplished nothing as compared to her.