Thursday, March 20, 2014

Guest Post Concerning the Irena Sendler Project

I am flattered that the people involved with this project asked to write a guest post on my blog. I think they overestimate my blog's influence, but the project seems meaningful and worthy.

Irena Sendler an Unrecognized Hero
Numerous articles, books and other materials have been written recently about Irena Sendler but the Polish resistance heroine had been all but forgotten until 1999. In that year a group of Kansas schoolgirls, acting on a rumor, revived the story, researched it and publicized it as an inspiring message to the world. Irena Sendler is credited with saving over 2500 Jewish lives during WWII but, aside from a 1965 commemoration from Yad Vashem as a Righteous Gentile, Sendler's bravery had been relegated to the dustbin of history until her actions were recorded in the Life in a Jar project of unsung heroes.

Sendler was a young Polish social worker who worked for the Warsaw Department of Social Services when the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939. She joined the Zagota underground and specialized in helping Jews escape from the Nazis. It's estimated that during the first year of the war she assisted over 500 Jews to locate hiding places, secure false papers and otherwise evade the Nazis.

In 1940 the Nazis built a ghetto in Warsaw. The ghetto encompassed a three mile radius and close to half a million Jews were pushed into the ghetto walls where they were kept on starvation rations. Sendler secured papers that identified her as a nurse who specialized in infectious diseases and these papers allowed her to freely enter and exit the ghetto.

Sendler's first attempts to assist the ghetto Jews involved smuggling food into the ghetto but she quickly realized that she could only prolong a few lives for a short amount of time in this way. She searched for other ways to help the Jews and, in the end, decided that she would help the largest number of people by smuggling Jews out of the ghetto. Zagota decided that Sendler would concentrate on smuggling out children since it was easier to bring them out of the ghetto and easier to hide them.

Sendler began removing street children from the ghetto whose parents had been deported or killed.  She sedated the children and arranged for them to be smuggled out by hiding under tram seats, beneath garbage on garbage carts or inside bags or toolboxes. Sendler then began to focus on children whose parents were still alive. She went from door to door in the ghetto, trying to convince the parents to let her take their children out of the ghetto.

For Sendler, these encounters were traumatic. The parents were at their wits end but were unsure as to whether to trust Sendler, or, indeed, whether their children would have a better chance of survival with their families within the ghetto or outside on their own.  In interviews conducted with Sendler 50 years after the war she described how difficult it was to talk to the parents. "I talked the parents out of their children" she said. “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.”

Once the children were on the free side of Warsaw Sendler procured false papers for them and send them into hiding in orphanages, convents and with sympathetic Polish families. She recorded all of the names of the children, along with their hiding places, on strips of tissue paper which were placed in glass jars and buried in her garden. She hoped that, after the war, they would be reunited with their families or, at the very least, with their community.

In October 1943, shortly after the Germans liquidated the ghetto, the Germans arrested Sendler. They tortured her but she did not reveal any information about the children or about her Zagota comrades. The Germans sentenced Sendler to death but Zagota was able to secure her release and she lived out the rest of the war in hiding.

The Kansas schoolgirls researched Sendler's life in 1999 and created the 'Life in a Jar' project composed of a book, a website and a performance to honor her activities and publicize her story. To date the performance has been viewed by tens of thousands of people throughout the world and led to the creation of the LMC Foundation that encourages projects about other 'unknown heroes' as well.

1 comment:

  1. We Jews don't erect statues, and I wish we had some sort of canonization process. Irena Sendler does not need our veneration, but I think every Jew thinks of her, and, humbled in the contemplation of this supernal spirituality, wishes there were some formal way to express our gratitude.