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Guest Post: Irena Sendler - From the Righteous Among the Nations
Guest post by Laurie Rappeport
Explaining the Holocaust defies reason, but countless books, films, memorials, educational programs and research projects attempt to make some kind of sense of the inexplicable.
One of the largest projects, Yad Vashem's Righteous Among the Nations, tries to identify some kind of good that existed in those unimaginable times. The honor recognizes righteous gentiles who risked their own lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. Even though most of the righteous gentiles themselves have died, Yad Vashem continues to identify and honor their names.
In 1965 the Righteous Among the Nations honor was presented to Irena Sendler, a Polish woman who is credited with having saved almost 3000 Jewish lives during the German occupation of Poland. Following the Jerusalem ceremony Sendler returned to Warsaw where her deeds were all but forgotten. Almost 35 years later a group of Kansas schoolgirls from the Lowell Milken Center stumbled on mention of her wartime activities and began to investigate. Their research expanded greatly on the Yad Vashem information and shined new light on the way that unsung heroes can change a world.
Sendler was working as a social worker in Warsaw when the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939. She joined Zagota, a resistance organization that specialized in helping Jews escape the Nazis. During the first year of the war she assisted over 500 Jews -- helping them to locate hiding places, secure false papers find strategies to evade the Nazis.
In 1940 the Nazis built a ghetto for the Jews in Warsaw. The ghetto encompassed a radius of three miles. Nearly half a million Jews were pushed into the ghetto walls where they were kept on starvation rations. Sendler obtained papers which identified her as a nurse who specialized in infectious diseases and these papers allowed her to cross the gate and enter and exit the ghetto freely.
Sendler first attempted to help the Jews by smuggling food into the ghetto. She quickly realized that these small amounts of food would only allow her to prolong a few lives for a short amount of time. She then searched for other ways in which she could help the Jews and finally decided that she could help the largest number of people by smuggling people out of the ghetto. Zagota encouraged her to concentrate on smuggling children since it was easier to bring children out of the ghetto was and easier to hide them once they were on the Aryan side.
Sendler began bringing out street children -- these were children whose parents had been deported or killed. She sedated the children and arranged for them to be brought out by hiding them under tram seats, beneath garbage on garbage carts or inside toolboxes or other bags. At some point Sendler began to focus on smuggling out children whose parents were still alive. She walked from door to door inside the ghetto, speaking to the parents to try to convince them to let her take their children out of the ghetto.
In an interview held more than 50 years after the event Sendler described how traumatic these encounters were for her. The parents were at their wits end but couldn't decide whether their children would have a better chance of survival inside the ghetto or out on their own. Sendler said "I talked the parents out of their children. 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 on the free side of Warsaw the children were still in great danger. Sendler procured false papers that identified some of the children as Christians. Others were sent into hiding in orphanages, convents and with sympathetic Polish families. She recorded the names of the children, along with their hiding places, on pieces of tissue paper which she placed in glass jars which were then buried in the garden. Sendler hoped that, after the war, the children could be reunited with their families or, at the very least, with their community.
Sendler's story is widely known today because a group of schoolgirls spent the time and effort to research Sendler's life. Today that research is recorded in a book a website and a performance -- all named "Life in a Jar."