17 June 2013

Irena Sendler - The Unknown Holocaust Hero

Many people who are aware of Yad VaShem's program to honor Righteous Gentiles assume that all such individuals have been honored by now -- 68 years after the end of WWII. Indeed, Yad Vashem's program has bestowed recognition on tens of thousands of individuals who demonstrated bravery and heroism as they risked their own lives to save Jewish men, women and children. However, even today, new stories are coming to light about the actions of rescuers and untold stories about the rescuers themselves, even those who have been honored, continue to emerge.

One such incident involves Irena Sendler, a Polish social worker who is credited with saving over 3000 Jewish lives between 1939 and 1943. Sendler was, in fact, honored by Yad VaShem in 1965 but her story went largely unnoticed until a group of Kansas City schoolgirls began to investigate the story as part of their research of the Holocaust. The research, which began in 1999, culminated in a trip that the girls took to Poland to meet Sendler and  the subsequent development of additional materials that highlight the amazing story of a remarkable woman.

Irena Sendler joined the Zagota underground soon after the Nazis invaded Poland. Zagota members specialized in helping Jews escape the Polish dragnet and it is estimated that Sendler and her comrades assisted over 500 Jews escape German capture between 1939 and 1941.

In 1941 Sendler obtained false identification papers which identified her as a nurse with permission to enter the Warsaw Ghetto to bring in food and medicine. Sendler immediately understood that the Nazi's intended to, ultimately, destroy the ghetto and kill the residents and she decided to save as many lives as possible -- this time, primarily the lives of children, who she felt that she could best hide in the orphanages and convents of Poland.

Sendler began to knock on doors in the ghetto and implored parents to allow her to take their children to safety beyond the ghetto walls. She later recounted the trauma of trying to convince mothers and fathers that their children would be safer with her than they would be if they remained in the ghetto. "I talked the mothers out of their children" Sendler later related as she described the heartwrenching scenes that she had to endure, day after day, as she separated the parents from their children. "Those scenes over whether to give a child away were heart-rending. Sometimes, they wouldn't give me the child. Their first question was, 'What guarantee is there that the child will live?' I said, 'None. I don't even know if I will get out of the ghetto alive today."

Sendler smuggled the children out of the ghetto under the noses of the Nazis, bringing the children out by hiding them in toolboxes, bags, luggage and even under garbage carts or under piles of rags with barking dogs on top as they passed the German guards who were stationed at the entrance to the ghetto.  She and other Zagota members also identified a network of hidden tunnels and learned about the sewer system that ran under the city which they used as well to smuggle the children out.

Once the children were safely removed Sendler's work continued. She needed to find safe hiding places for the children, primarily in orphanages, convents and with sympathetic families. The children were provided with new names but Sendler recorded their real names and hiding places on tissue paper which she placed in glass jars and then buried in her neighbor's garden, hoping to one day reunite them with their families or the Jewish community.

Sendler was captured in October 1943 and tortured but she didn't reveal any information about "her" children. Zagota members secured her release by bribing a German guard and she lived out the rest of the war in hiding.

Today Sendler's activities are commemorated by the Lowell Milken Center in the Life in a Jar project which includes a book, a website and a performance which has been viewed by audiences throughout the world.


SnoopyTheGoon said...

How interesting, and thanks for the links.