Tuesday, 18 February 2014
Forgotten Story of Irena Sendler (Guest Post)
Today you can find numerous articles, books and other materials about Irena Sendler but the Polish resistance heroine -- a woman who is credited with having saved almost 3000 Jewish lives during the Holocaust -- had been all but forgotten until 1999. Aside from a 1965 commemoration from Yad Vashem as a Righteous Gentile Sendler's bravery had been relegated to the dustbin of history until a group of Kansas schoolgirls, acting on a rumor, researched the story and revived interest in Sendler's actions. The project began as a school assignment but ended up being turned into a book, a website, a performance which as, to date, been viewed by tens of thousands of people from around the world. and the eventual establishment of the LMC to commemorate unrecognized heroes.
Sendler was a young Polish social worker working for the Warsaw Department of Social Services when the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939. She joined Zagota, a Polish resistance underground which specialized in helping Jews escape from the Nazis. During the first year of the war Sendler assisted an estimated 500 Jews, helping them locate hiding places, secure false papers and evade the Nazi juggernaut.
In 1940 the Nazis built a ghetto in Warsaw. The ghetto encompassed a three mile radius and close to half a million Jews were trapped in the ghetto where they were kept on starvation rations of a few hundred calories per day. Sendler secured papers that identified her as an infectious disease specialist. These papers allowed her to freely enter and exit the ghetto.
Sendler's first forays into the ghetto involved smuggling food and medicines to the residents but she quickly realized that such smuggling activities could only prolong a few lives for a short amount of time. She considered other ways in which she could help and, in the end, decided that she would be able to aid the largest number of people by smuggling Jews out of the ghetto. Zagota agreed and asked Sendler to focus on smuggling children since it was easier to bring children out of the ghetto and easier to hide them once they had reached the Aryan side.
Sendler began to smuggle street children out of the ghetto. These were children whose parents had been deported or killed. The children were sedated and hidden under tram seats, under garbage on garbage carts or inside toolboxes or luggage. Sendler also focused on children whose parents were still alive. She went from door to door to convince the parents to allow her take their children out of the ghetto.
These encounters were traumatic, both for Sendler and for the parents who were forced to try to decide whether to trust Sendler, or, indeed, whether their children would have a better chance of survival inside the ghetto or outside on their own. Sendler was still alive when the Kansas schoolgirls started their project in 1999 and she described to them how difficult her mission had been. "I talked the parents out of their children" she told the girls. “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.”
Once the children had been safely removed from the ghetto Sendler and other Zagota members had to find places where the children could hide. Some were taken in by sympathetic Polish families and others were sent into hiding in orphanages and convents. Sendler recorded the names of all of the children, together with their hiding places. She wrote the information on strips of tissue paper and placed them in glass jars which she buried in her garden. She hoped that, after the war, the children could be reunited with their families or, at the very least, with the Jewish community.
In October 1943, shortly after the Germans liquidated the Warsaw ghetto, the Gestapo arrested Sendler. They brought her to the infamous Piawiak prison and tortured her but Sendler didn't reveal any information about the childrens' whereabouts or about her Zagota comrades. The Germans sentenced Sendler to death but her Zagota comrades were able to bribe a guard and secure her release. Sendler lived out the rest of the war in hiding.
Due to the Life in a Jar project Sendler was properly recognized during her own lifetime -- she died in 2008.
--- Guest Post