Monday, May 27, 2013

Irena Sendler - the Forgotten Holocaust Hero

** A Guest Post From Laurie R. **

The recent memorial commemorations of the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the passing of Baruch Spiegel, one of the last remaining survivors of the 1943 Warsaw ghetto revolt, have sparked renewed interest in many of the previously unknown events of the ghetto during the war years.

One of these stories revolves around the actions of Polish woman, Irena Sendler, who was dubbed the "female Oskar Schindler" for her success in saving thousands of Jewish lives during the dark days of the Nazi occupation of Poland.

Sendler was a young Polish social worker in 1939 when the Nazis invaded Poland. She joined the Zagota, a Polish underground, and in the first months of the occupation was able to help over 500 Jews escape the Nazi dragnet.

In 1940 Sendler moved to Warsaw where she procured false papers that identified her as a nurse, enabling her to enter the Warsaw ghetto to bring in food and medicine. Sendler quickly ascertained the Nazi's ultimate goal for the ghetto and she began to smuggle children out to be safely hidden with sympathetic Polish families, in Polish convents and in orphanages.

At the beginning Sendler concentrated on bringing out the ghetto orphans but as time went on she began to approach Jewish parents to, as she later said, "talk the mothers out of their children." She begged the parents to allow her to remove their children, convincing them that if they remained in the ghetto, they had no chance of survival.

It is estimated that, all in all, Sendler smuggled out over 2500 children. The youngest children were often sedated and smuggled out in toolboxes, luggage and other bags -- on occasion Sendler placed them in a carrier under a barking dog to deter the Germans from further investigation. 

Sendler carefully documented the names and hiding places of the children that she saved. She wrote the pertinent information on tissue paper which she then inserted into glass jars and buried in her neighbor's garden. Sendler believed that this information would allow the children to be reunited eventually, with their families or, if that was not possible, with their Jewish community.

In 1943 Sendler was arrested by the Gestapo and imprisoned in the notorious Piawiak prison. She was tortured by the Nazis who broke both of her feet but she never revealed any information about the Zagota or the whereabouts of "her" children. After several months her Zagota comrades were able to bribe a German guard who place her name on a list of executed prisoners and smuggled her out of Piawiak. Sendler remained in hiding for the duration of the war.

In 1999 a group of Kansas City non-Jewish schoolgirls heard a rumor about Sendler's activities and decided to investigate as part of a unit that they were studying about the Second World War. Their research led them to Sendler, who was still alive at that time, and ultimately, they met Sendler and interviewed her extensively.

The girls turned the account of Sendler's actions into a project, "Life in a Jar,". Through funding from Jewish education reformer Lowell Milken the Irena Sendler project eventually expanded to include a book, a website and a performance that has been viewed by thousands of people in audiences throughout the world.

1 comment:

  1. I just saw on the Times of Israel that the Poles have now named a street in her honour. Well done.