Sunday, May 19, 2024

Irena Sendler and the Thousands She Saved

“People can only be divided into good or bad; their race, religion and nationality don’t matter”

From 1939 to 1940, Germany invaded and occupied 20 countries in Europe. In just five years, the Nazis killed two out of every three Jews in these countries – 1.5 million of them children. Murder, violence and terror accelerated as the Second World War raged on. In the midst of this horror is a story of compassion and courage – a woman who risked her life repeatedly to save thousands of Polish children. PASSIONS presents Irena Sendler, and the mark she made on the world.

At the start of World War II, Polish Irena Sendler was a Senior Administrator in the Warsaw Social Welfare Department which provided meals, financial aid and services for orphans, the elderly and the poor. Irena was raised Catholic by her father, a Polish doctor who taught her to be unbiased, and that “people can only be divided into good or bad; their race, religion and nationality don’t matter.” Keeping to these principles, she also provided clothing, medicine and money for the Jews.

The Warsaw Ghetto was a 16-block walled area where hundreds of thousands of Jews were confined while awaiting their death. Irena was appalled by this, and refused to stand by and do nothing. She worked to acquire a permit to enter the Ghetto – to check for signs of typhus, which the Nazis feared would spread beyond the walls. Once inside, Irena was horrified to discover the living conditions. Children were starving and Nazi SS officers used corpses for target practice. Poor hygiene resulted in epidemics and deaths. “I saw all this and a million other things that a human eye should never have to see,” she later said, “and it has stayed with me for every second of every day that God has granted me to live.”

Irena knew that it would be near impossible to save everyone in the Ghetto, so she decided she would aim to save the children. She rounded up her colleagues at the Social Welfare Department and undertook a mission that was very dangerous – to smuggle children out of the Ghetto. Some of the children were told to play dead, carried out as corpses in coffins or body bags to waiting ambulances, while others were concealed under goods or potato sacks. Babies were smuggled out in toolboxes and suitcases or wrapped in packages, or carried through sewers leading out of the Ghetto.

There was a church in the Ghetto that had two entrances – one opened into the Ghetto and the other into the “Aryan” side of Warsaw. After issuing hundreds of false documents with fake signatures, Irena managed to give the children temporary new identities. Many of those who walked into the church from the Ghetto, exited through the other side as Christians. They were trained to forget their real names and remember their new ones. Their lives depended on it.

When Irena began secretly transporting the children out, she started with the orphans. Later, she approached parents, convincing them to hand over their children to her so she could get them out of the Ghetto. She said in an interview that it was a harrowing experience for her, when parents asked her, “Can you guarantee they will live?” and she could only answer, “I can only guarantee that they will die if they stay.”

Through her efforts, hundreds of children escaped from the Ghetto and were given new identities. Irena wrote down the names of all “her” children, 2,500 of them, noting their original names and recording their new ones. She intended to one day disclose this record and reunite the children with their families.

Irena created a network of families, orphanages and religious establishments that were willing to shelter the children. This was no easy feat, as Poles who were discovered helping the Jews were executed immediately, as were their families and the Jews they were helping. Understandably, it was difficult to find anyone who would provide sanctuary for Jews, but Irena was persistent and managed to find homes and safe hiding places for the children.

In 1942, she and her team received support from a Council for Aid to Jews, code-named “Zegota”, an underground operation backed by the exiled Polish government. With Zegota, she continued her efforts to help the destitute Jews, rescuing children and helping them to safety in occupied Poland.

It was not long before she attracted the Nazis’ attention, and in 1943, Irena was arrested. She was able to pass the list of the children’s names to a friend, who stored them in jars and buried them under a neighbour’s apple tree. Irena was imprisoned by the Gestapo at the notorious Pawiak Prison, from which prisoners rarely left alive. For three terrifying months, she was tortured and beaten relentlessly until both her arms and legs were broken, crippling her for life. Through it all, despite the agony, she remained silent, not revealing anything about the children she had saved or the people who had helped her. After a long, excruciating interrogation, she was sentenced to death.

Some members of Zegota offered a hefty bribe to a Gestapo officer who checked off Irena’s name on a list of prisoners already executed, and she was allowed to escape. Her name was published in German bulletins as among the dead, and until the end of the War, she lived in hiding, under a false name.

 After the war, she dug up the jars and attempted to reconcile some of the children with their long-lost relatives across Europe. Many of those families were long gone, murdered in Nazi death camps during the Holocaust, and she was unable to track her hundreds of children. “I continue to have pangs of conscience that I did so little,” Irena said in one of her interviews. “I could have done more. This regret will follow me to my death.”

But the world saw it differently. In 2003, Irena was awarded Poland’s highest distinction – the Order of White Eagle – for her valour and courage, and she was declared a national hero. Schools are named in her honour, and an annual Irena Sendler Day is celebrated throughout Europe and the United States.

In 2007, she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. President Lech Kaczynski announced a unanimous resolution to honour her. “She rescued the most defenseless victims of the Nazi ideology: the Jewish children,” the President said. “She deserves great respect from the whole nation.”

That same year, Elzbieta Ficowska, who was just six months old when she was saved by Irena Sendler, recalled in an interview, “It took a true miracle to save a Jewish child. Mrs. Sendler saved not only us, but also our children and grandchildren and the generations to come.”

Irena Sendler passed away in the early hours of a Monday in May 2008, at the age of 98. Yet her legacy lives on, through the thousands of children she saved, and the millions she has inspired. Her courage enabled not only the survival of 2,500 Jewish children but also the subsequent generations of their descendants. She restored people’s faith in the innate goodness of the human heart, and how it can triumph in the face of unspeakable evil. This is her legacy, and the greatest prize of all.

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