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Pre-2008 Posts

In Memorium: Irena Sendler, 98, Who Saved the Lives of 2,500 Jewish Children During the Nazi Reign

Almost everyone has heard of Oskar Schindler (Schindler’s List) and his heroic rescue of 1,200 Jews during Hitler’s reign . Not so many know about Irena Sendler, above, who as a 29-year-old Polish social worker ultimately rescued 2,500 Jewish children from Nazi occupiers of Warsaw, Poland, who had built a wall and a ghetto for the Jews.

Sendler had been influenced by her father, a doctor, who defied the Nazis and treated sick Jews during outbreaks of typhoid fever.  Her father died of typhoid fever himself when Sendler was 9 years old.

Sendler in 1943 after escaping Pawiak prison.

Sendler in 1943 shortly after escaping from Pawiak prison.

Social workers were not allowed in the Warsaw ghetto, but Sendler went in anyway, along with 25 comrades she had recruited to help her, 24 of them women.  They called themselves “Zegota”.  Sendler and her sisters (and one brother) went into the Warsaw ghetto, risking their lives — Nazi orders were to shoot non-Jews and anyone who aided them on sight —  and rescued children, carrying them out in baskets, boxes, wrapped up in packages, in coffins.   Their parents, in anguish, would ask Sendler whether she could ensure their children would live.  Sendler could not.  But she knew and told them that if she did not carry the children to safety, they would surely die. 

The jars containing names and information about the rescued children were buried here in Sendler’s friend’s garden, under the tree above.  Her friend’s daughter, Hanna Piotrowska, who was 12 years old at the time her mother and Irena buried the jars, still lives at this residence.

Sendler found safe places for all of the 2,500 children she rescued — in orphanages, in private homes.  She gave them non-Jewish aliases, carefully recording their true names on thin rolls of paper, hoping she could eventually reunite them with their families. She preserved the rolls of paper in jars she buried in a friend’s garden. 

In 1943, Sendler was captured by the Nazis, imprisoned and tortured over many days.   However brutal the torture — Sendler’s feet and legs were broken during one torture session and she passed out from the pain —  Sendler never disclosed the names of her comrades, the location of her buried bottles containing the names of rescued children,  or anything about the children.  Eventually she was able to escape.

When the war ended,  Sendler unearthed her jars and tried to reunite the children she had rescued with their families.  Most of their families were dead.  Many of the children she rescued were adopted by Polish families.  Some went to Israel.

Megan (Felt) Stewart (above) stumbled on Sendler’s story as a 9th grader in Kansas, wrote a play about it, and made the world aware of what Sendler had done.

Although in 1965, Sendler was recognized by Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust authority, as a “Righteous Gentile”, an honor given to non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the reign of the Nazis, comparatively few knew of Sendler’s work until 1999, when a ninth grade girl in Kansas, Megan Felt, and several of her girlfriends, stumbled across an article about Sendler.  Felt wrote a play about Sendler called “Life in a Jar,” and eventually traveled to Poland to meet her shero.  Since 1999, Felt’s play has been presented over 250 times in three countries.  Felt and her friends created the Irena Sendler Foundation, raising money to pay for Sendler’s care as an elder woman.  In 2006, Sendler was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Sendler passed over at 98 years of age yesterday, May 12, in Warsaw Poland, of pneumonia.  She leaves a daughter and a granddaughter to mourn.





4 thoughts on “In Memorium: Irena Sendler, 98, Who Saved the Lives of 2,500 Jewish Children During the Nazi Reign

  1. Lovely tribute, Heart, thank you. x

    Posted by Debs | May 14, 2008, 7:31 am
  2. A great woman ignored for so many years.

    I don’t know what makes a person take a stand in the midst of a totalitarian state. Courage, love, independence of mind, defiance? I lived in Germany off and on for several years. In the process I listened to many personal stories from the Nazi years. They are ambivalent stories, both for their tellers and listeners. Here’s one of them.

    My friend Sabine’s grandmother had a husband as a footsoldier in the army, two babies at home, and no education or money herself. She ran a small neighborhood concession — milk, a few vegetables, that sort of thing, and tried to keep things together for her family in Gostenhof, a poor quarter of Nuremberg.

    In Nuremberg any Jews remaining were forbidden to buy groceries or store items from non-Jews. Jewish stores had been forced to close. Effectively, it was a starvation policy. Each neighborhood, every street in fact, had a watcher who reported infractions of rules and laws to the state.

    Sabine’s grandmother persisted in selling milk after hours out her back door to Jewish neighbors who slipped out in the dark to knock on her door. The watcher spotted her and threatened her with a report to the authorities. Sabine’s granny cussed her out a blue streak, threatened her back, claimed her status as wife of a soldier of the Reich, and continued secretly to sell her milk to her neighbors. Then the Jews, all of them, were rounded up and shipped off from the railway station in Nuremberg with its excellent eastern European rail connections.

    Should the grandmother have done more? Undoubtedly, yes. Should everyone have done more? Yes. Fear, guilt, terror, selfish desires to outlive others and survive — these things fall on each individual alone and isolated, making us weak, timid. The totalitarian state, the Nazis, were so effective at isolating resistance, that for most people resistance remained a series of gestures — unconnected, largely ineffective, episodic.

    For the most part these stories of defiance go to the grave with the person who authored them. They feel . . . the inadequacy of their actions and don’t want to tell their children of their small kindnesses that did not suffice.

    It was good to hear of someone who risked more and did manage to save others.

    Posted by twitch | May 14, 2008, 7:37 pm
  3. I think courage is something you practice daily. And it is often a very rare quality, or seemingly rare.

    Like any other virtue, you have to give yourself the chance to try it out when the situation warrents.

    My cousins used to talk about Irena Sendler a lot. One of my relatives I think knew some of her relatives. So this whole story was vaguely familiar. They all these tales of Jewish heroines that came up at family gatherings. My cousins were always writing incredible term papers (remember those?) on the Holocaust. I well remember my friend Vicky in 1970, who wrote the first term paper I had ever heard on the death camps and what happened. Her paper was so good, the teacher read it out loud. The class was stunned into shocked silence for quite sometime after Vicky had finished reading her paper. I remember being surprised back then how little my gentile classmates knew about anything that happened in NAZI Germany. Jewish relatives must have talked about this a lot more for some reason.

    Courage is hard for women a lot of the time, because women are trained to be so “submissive.” It makes it really hard for women to speak up in public, if they are in the minority.

    There were lots of people who stood up against the NAZIS, just as there have always been people who stand for freedom and justice.

    We all can be heroines in our own time, but sometimes we are quite brave, but we don’t know it!

    People could always do more in every situation. But again, you take social risks. The fear of looking bad in front of everyone is deeply engrained in women, but when women decide to rise up, watch out, they move mountains. A stuck stone is very hard to dislodge, but once this happens, it can easily roll down the hill 🙂

    Posted by Satsuma | May 14, 2008, 8:51 pm

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