If you look at a picture of Irena Sendler (Sendlerowa), you see what could be described as "everybody's grandma". Her smile is kind and warm, and there seems to be nothing unusual about Irena Sendler. However, she was an extraordinary woman.
Irena Sendler died on May 12, 2008 at the age of 98. Her life was one of sacrifice and extreme personal danger. She was raised by her Catholic parents to respect all people, regardless of race, religion and creed. Born in Warsaw, Poland, she entered into the horrific times of the Holocaust. She eventually led the way in the rescue of 2,500 Jewish children.
Her physician father impressed upon the 7-year old Irena that “If you see someone drowning you must try to rescue them, even if you cannot swim” And, rescue she did, using her courage and wits against the cruel regime that sent so many to their deaths. The Nazis forced the Jews into the ghettos, where they were denied adequate food, and then were led into the killing chambers.
Sendler became a social worker and used that status to get contact with children. She then used whatever she could to get them out of the country, including forging documents for them. This involved smuggling them out in unusual containers, even coffins. She used the churches to smuggle some of the older children out. A network was developed, using several people along the way.
Perhaps her hardest task was in persuading Jewish parents to entrust their children to her. She could not ensure their safety or escape. A parents instinct is to keep a child close, not to send it to an unknown fate. Yet, it was a chance for life for children, which soon became the only chance. What anguish it must have been for these mothers, not knowing what had happened to their children once they had left their arms.
In a New York Times article by Dennis Hevesi on May 13, one of these survivors, Elzbieta Ficowska, a baby in 1942, relates:
"Mrs. Sendler saved not only us, but also our children and grandchildren and the generations to come." Ms. Ficowska told The Associated Press last year.
As a pebble thrown into a pond, Sendler actions rippled out and out.
And from the New York Times article:
"A church straddled the ghetto border. 'Children would be taken into the church, go into the confessional, and come out with papers as a little Catholic', Ms. Stahl said. They would then be taken to a Christian home, a convent or an orphanage."<>Sendler used false documents and false names. She became part of the ZEGOTA underground, which supplied her with money and other support. She was meticulous in keeping the records of these children, their false names and real names, hoping that someday they would be reunited with their families. She hid these lists in glass jars, buried strategically in a backyard.
Eventually, Sendler was caught and tortured to reveal what she knew. She did not divulge where her lists were hidden. She was sentenced to death by firing squad, but was freed by ZEGOTA through bribing a guard to let her go.
Some tributes to her on an Irena Sendler web site say it all:
Local Jewish man in Kansas
City: "She took on the Third Reich and was victorious. I salute her and
remember the quote about Lincoln, upon his death: 'she now belongs to
Jacek Leociak, historian and author: "She was a light, a light in the terrible darkness of the Warsaw Ghetto".
Students have written a play: "Life in a Jar", which will bring her story to many. It will be performed mostly in the New England area near the end of 2008.
She has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of her life's work.
Movie-goers were touched by the story of Oskar Schindler in "Schindler's List". He, too, rescued Polish Jews from the grasp of the cruel regime, thereby saving the lives of over 1,000 people.
Irena Sendler's life has the makings of a great movie, one that reminds us of a truly heroic woman, using every gift she had to keep people alive. Too few like her come our way. However, she has inspired many to be braver, to be more dedicated, to fulfill their destinies with unflinching courage and faith.
"Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends."
My gratitude to Brian Kindzia, who collaborated with me on this story.