Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Never Again, Never Forget, Irena Sendler

There isn't any fiction as amazing as true stories.  When fiction tries to be amazing, it ends up being just too unrealistic.  The Holocaust challenged some people to greatness.  Not everyone was up to risking everything to help others.  I don't think that we can judge those who couldn't, but we must praise and publicize the stories of those who did find the courage, determination and creativity to overcome the pressures, cruelty and fears of the time.  Irena Sendler is one of the great heroines who saw people in need and risked her life to help them.  I trust you'll appreciate her story.

She Saved 3000 Jews During the Holocaust 

The 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising has renewed focus on the events of the Nazi occupation of Poland and the fate of Poland's Jews during World War II. Between October 1940 and May 1943 over 400,000 Polish Jews were rounded up and herded into the 1.3 square mile ghetto. Of the original Jewish population, few Jews survived the round-ups, murders, starvation and disease but some of the ghetto residents were able to escape the ghetto and find hiding places on the other side of the ghetto wall. 

Many of the Polish citizens who helped the Jews escape and hide have been honored by Yad Vashem as Righteous Gentiles. One individual in particular, Irena Sendler, was credited with having saved over 3000 Jewish lives but after her Jerusalem commemoration ceremony in 1965 her story was almost forgotten. It was only when a group of non-Jewish schoolgirls from Uniontown Kansas happened to hear a rumor of her wartime activities and started to research the events that the world could fully appreciate the incredible courage and selflessness that Sendler demonstrated.

When the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939 Irena Sendler was a senior administrator in the Warsaw Social Welfare Department. She immediately joined the Zagota underground which specialized in helping Jews escape Nazi persecution. Sendler became involved in acquiring forged documents which registered Jews under Christian names so they could receive services. 

Sendler obtained a pass from the Warsaw Epidemic Control Department which allowed her to enter the Warsaw Ghetto. She smuggled in food, medicine, and clothing but came to the conclusion that she was simply prolonging the suffering of the Jews. She decided to try to save the children. "When the war started, all of Poland was drowning in a sea of blood. But most of all, it affected the Jewish nation" Sendler said in a interview conducted in 2007. "And within that nation, it was the children who suffered most. That's why we needed to give our hearts to them."

Zagota put Sendler in charge of its Children's Division and she and her team of twenty-five Zagota members began to smuggle out as many children as possible from the Ghetto. Irena suffered almost as much as the children's parents as she tried to convince them to allow her to give their children a chance to be saved.

"I talked the mothers out of their children" Sendler reminisced. "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 sedated small children to keep them from crying and then hid them in toolboxes, bags and even under garbage as they were smuggled out of the ghetto.. Older children were often smuggled through sewers or underground tunnels or through the old courthouse which was located next to the ghetto wall. 

Once a child had been removed from the ghetto Sendler and the other Zagota members would provide him with false names and documents and find him a hiding place, usually in a convent or an orphanage. Sendler recorded all of the names of the children on scraps of tissue paper and hid them in glass jars in her neighbor's yard. 

In October 1943 Sendler was arrested by the Gestapo and imprisoned. Although she endured horrific torture she didn't reveal any information about the children or about her Zagota comrades. The Germans sentenced her to death but Zagota was able to bribe a German guard and free her. Sendler lived out the rest of the war in hiding. 

After the war Sendler tried to locate the children according to the scraps of paper that were in the glass jars. She wanted to help them return to the Jewish community. Due to these efforts several hundred children immigrated to Israel while others remained in Poland, oftentimes with their adoptive families. The whereabouts of approximately 500 of Sendler's rescued children remain unknown.  

The Life in a Jar project was born out of the Kansas girls' research. Today hundreds of thousands of people know about Sendler's activities because of the project which includes a book, a website and a stage performance. It also led to the creation of the Lowell Milken Center that encourages students to  spread the stories of other unknown heroes.

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