I have asked many many people if they have heard of Irena Sendler. I have not gotten any “yes” answers. That’s a shame. People should know about her.
Irena Sendler died on May 23, 2008. She was 98. During the Holocaust, in Poland, she saved Jews. A lot of Jews. Probably more than the better known Oscar Schindler. We need a Thomas Kenneally or a Steven Spielberg to tell her story, too.
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Irina (or Irena) Sendler (or Sendlerova), was born in 1910 in Warsaw, and died on May 23, 2008 also in Warsaw, at the age of 98.
This is one good person who did not die young.
From her childhood on, she worked to help anyone who was persecuted or needy, often placing herself at risk of arrest, torture, or death (and those risks were quite real – she lived under both the Nazis and the Soviets). She is best known (to the extent that she is known at all) for her work under the Nazis, in the Warsaw Ghetto, where she saved 2,500 Jews (mostly children), with help from many others.
Some of Sendler’s goodness came from her parents: Her father was a doctor in the town of Otwock (near Warsaw). His office was the only one in that town that was open to anyone — Jew or Gentile, rich or poor. Partly as a result, her father died in 1917 from typhus, which he got from one of his patients.
Irina Sendler was a social worker. She studied to be one in Poland, and, in those days, Polish universities had separate benches for Jews. Irena (a Catholic) sat on the Jewish benches. Life was not great in pre-war Poland, but after the Nazis invaded, things got considerably worse. The Warsaw Ghetto crammed 450,000 people into about 1.5 square miles, and rationed them 4.5 lbs of bread per week. But while the Nazis wanted to kill the Jews, they didn’t want typhus to break out and spread outside the ghetto, so they let nurses go in and give out medicine and vaccines. Sendler forged identification as a nurse so she could help. She didn’t stop at that, though.
Sendler joined Zegota, a Polish underground organization, and recruited 10 friends. She would obtain and smuggle in forged papers for the children; then she would steal sedatives and sedate babies and young children, who she smuggled out, hidden in sacks, coffins and boxes. Then she found places for them in convents, orphanages, or with Polish families. For older children, she found ways to escape through the sewer system.
But she didn’t just want the Jewish kids to survive, she wanted them to know who they were. So she kept records of each child, which she hid in jars and buried under a tree. In 1943, she was arrested, tortured (her feet and legs were broken), and sentenced to death…. but she didn’t give up her secrets. The Polish underground bribed a guard to let her go. While in jail, and working in the prison laundry, she and others made holes in the German’s underwear; when the Nazis discovered this, they shot half the workers.
After the war, she gave the children the jars she had hidden — but nearly all the children had no family left alive. Some moved to Israel, some were adopted by families in Poland.
The Communists tried to bury her story, since she was also anti-Communist, but in 1965, she was recognized by Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust museum, and in 1983, a tree was planted in her honor in the avenue of the righteous. But there still wasn’t much publicity. There was a short report in US News and World Report in 1994, and, in 1999, Norm Conrad, a teacher in a high school in Uniontown, Kansas, gave three of his pupils (Liz Cambers, Megan Stewart (now Felt), and Sabrina Coons…a fourth, Jessica Shelton, joined later) a copy of the article for a history day report and, together, they researched her life, found her in Poland, and wrote a play. They used the proceeds from the performance to pay for Sendler’s care in a nursing home in Poland.
They call the play, and the project Life in a Jar.
Go, read, and feel better about the human race.