Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Remembering the Deeds of Irena Sendler

When Yad Vashem was established in 1953 the Remembrance Authority’s mission included a program of honoring the Chasidey Umos Haolam -- the Righteous Among the Nations. As worldwide Jewry memorialized the victims and struggled with the enormity of the loss and the impact of the total abandonment and betrayal Europe’s Jews the Yad Vashem program was established in order to remember those individuals who put their lives and the lives of their families at risk to as they rescued Jews.

In 1965 Yad Vashem honored a Polish woman, Irena Sendler, who worked with a unique Polish underground group which specialized in helping Jews escape the Nazi dragnet. After the Yad VaShem ceremony however, Sendler returned to Poland and her story was almost lost to history although, according to records, she saved more than twice as many Jewish lives as the renowned Oskar Schindler of "Schindler's List" fame.

In 1999, by chance, a group of Kansas City students came across Sendler's story. They were fascinated by the sheer volume of lives that she had managed to save and, in the following years, they embarked on a research project that turned into the "Life in a Jar" project -- an acclaimed book, website and performance.

Irena Sendler was a young social worker when the Germans invaded Poland in 1939. She was one of the first Zagota -- an underground group which specialized in assisting Jews -- members. Through the first two years of the war she helped forge documents and locate hiding places for hundreds of Jews who were fleeing the Nazis.

In 1941 Sendler secured false documents which identified her as a nurse and enabled her to enter the Warsaw Ghetto in order to bring food and medicines into the ghetto. Once she saw the situation in the ghetto Sendler quickly realized that the Nazis intended to murder the Jews who had been crowded into the ghetto walls. She felt that the best chance to save lives lay in removing as many children from the ghetto as possible, and she began to do so, picking up orphans from the street and spiriting them out by sedating them and carrying them in toolboxes, luggage, bags and even under carts filled with garbage.

Sendler also approached families in the ghetto and begged them to allow them to remove their children. This was traumatic, not only for the parents, who had to decide where their children's best chance of survival lay, but for Sendler herself. "I talked the mothers out of their children" Sendler told interviewers as she described the heartwrenching scenes that she endured, day after day, as she took children from their parents. "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."

As perilous as smuggling the children out of the ghetto was -- under tram seats, via a secret passage through the Old Courthouse that stood on the edge of the ghetto and even through the sewer pipes that ran under the city -- the second part of the rescue operation was just as difficult. Sendler and other Zagota members had to forge documents for the children and find hiding places for them. Many children were placed in orphanages or in convents while others hid with sympathetic Polish families.

Sendler carefully recorded the names of the children on tissue paper which she secured in glass jars and buried in her neighbor's garden. She wanted to be sure that, after the war, if possible, the children could be reunited with their families or, if that proved to be impossible, at least with their Jewish community.

In October 1943 Sendler was arrested by the Gestapo and tortured. Zagota members secured her release by bribing a guard at the Pawiak prison and Sendler lived out the rest of the war in hiding.

In addition to her 1965 Yad Vashem commemoration Sendler was honored by the Life in a Jar project that the Kansas City students created. The project run by the Lowell Milken Centre pays tribute to Irena Sendler as it educates people throughout the world about what it means to stand up for justice.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Beautiful! Just beautiful. Truly righteous.
Glad to see you posting, Devorah.