Thursday, March 13

Irena Sendler - the Forgotten Holocaust Hero

As the years pass fewer living Holocaust survivors are able to bear witnesses to the atrocities that the Jews of the Nazi-occupied countries endured. A number of organizations, such as Yad Vashem, have been working feverishly to collect as many testimonies as possible as they make every effort to memorialize the victims.

In addition to remembering the victims such testimonies are also frequently used to honor Righteous Gentiles who risked their own lives to save Jews. Yad Vashem employs numerous archivists and uses the services of dozens of volunteers in their effort to obtain the testimonies and outrun the clock.

Sometimes the information comes unexpectedly. Such was the case regarding the story of Irena Sendler, a Polish woman who was honored for her role in saving over 2500 Jewish children from the Warsaw ghetto. Sendler received her honor as a Righteous Gentile in 1963 from Yad Vashem but her story was quickly forgotten. It was only in 1999, when a group of non-Jewish schoolgirls from Uniontown Kansas pursued a rumor, that the incredible story of Irena Sendler's bravery was publicized throughout the world.

Irena Sendler was working as a social worker for the Warsaw Department of Welfare when the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939. She became active with the Zagota underground which was active in assisting Jews who were trying to escape from Nazi persecution. Zagota members helped Jews find hiding places and obtain false papers which would enable them to blend into Polish society.  By 1940 Zagota had named Sendler as the head of its children's unit and she began to look for ways to help Jewish children escape from the Germans.

The Nazis built the Warsaw ghetto in 1940. Almost half a million people were enclosed in the ghetto without adequate food, shelter or medicine. Irena Sendler, in her capacity as a city social worker, obtained a pass that allowed her to freely enter and exit the ghetto. She tried to smuggle food into the ghetto but it was like a drop in a bucket and she quickly realized that, to make an impact, she would have to find another course of action.

Together with her Zagota comrades Sendler devised a plan to smuggle children out of the ghetto. She started with street children, sedating them and hiding them in toolboxes, luggage and in carts under barking dogs and garbage. Soon she began to approach parents. She asked these parents to allow her to try to save their children by taking them out of the ghetto.

In an interview that Sendler conducted in 2004 she recalled those conversations."I talked the mothers out of their children" she told her interviewers. "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."

Some parents refused to allow Sendler to take their children, believing that the children should stay with their families. Others couldn't believe that the children would have a better chance of survival outside the ghetto, among Polish gentiles. But over the course of two years Sendler and other Zagota members smuggled over 2500 children out of the ghetto, hiding them in convents, orphanages and with sympathetic Polish families.

Irena Sendler carefully recorded the names of all of the children that she rescued. She placed the slips of tissue paper with the children's names and hiding places in glass jars which she buried in her garden.  Sendler hoped that, after the war, the children could be reunited with surviving family members or, at the very least, with the Jewish community.

In October 1943 the Gestapo arrested Sendler and sentenced her to be shot.  Zagota members were able to bribe a German guard and smuggle her out of the prison. Sendler remained in hiding until the end of the war.

In 1963 Yad VaShem honored Irena Sendler. After the awards ceremony she returned to Warsaw where her wartime activities were forgotten. When the Kansas students began to research Sendler's actions during the war, they were startled to uncover her story, realizing it had all been forgotten in the dustbin of history. Together with the funding from Jewish philanthropist Lowell Milken and the LMC they were able to publicize it to a worldwide audience. The project, Life in a Jar, honors Sendler's heroism and bravery and has evolved into a website, a book and a performance which has been seen by thousands of people throughout the world.


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