Saviour of Warsaw’s Children

20 06 2013

On October 16th, 1940, the German Governor-General, Hans Frank, established the largest ghetto in all of occupied Poland. Comprised of an area some 3.4km², the Warsaw Ghetto was populated for a time by over 400,000 people. Hunger, privation, casual murder and the systematic eradication of its inhabitants in Treblinka resulted in the annihilation of almost 300,000 Polish Jews between 1940 and 1943.

The Piaseczno Rebbe, Rabbi Kalonymus Kalmish Shapira, ran a secret synagogue within the Warsaw Ghetto. He was murdered in Trawniki during Operation Harvest Festival, but was survived by some of his disciples. His weekly and festival discourses have been edited and published in English translation as Sacred Fire.

Adam Czerniaków, former senator in Poland’s parliament, was the appointed head of Warsaw’s Judenrat: the governing body of Jews who were tasked with enforcing Nazi directives. On July 23rd, 1942 – one day after the commencement of Grossaktion Warsaw – Czerniaków swallowed a cyanide tablet. He was survived by his wife, Niunia, who preserved the diary that he had kept from 1939 and who published it in 1979. It is available, in English translation, as The Warsaw Diary of Adam Czerniakow.

Dr Emanuel Ringelblum, historian of mediaeval Polish Jewish history, was moved into the Warsaw Ghetto along with his family and the rest of the local population. There he led a committee of historians, rabbis, scientists and social workers named Oyneg Shabbos (“the joy of Shabbat”), collecting visual and textual documents that would enable them to later tell the story of the ghetto and its inhabitants. As it became increasingly apparent that this story would end with the deaths of all of its actors, their mission became one of preservation only. Ringelblum and his family were all murdered in 1944, but two of the three collections that had been hidden have subsequently been unearthed. Their contents are currently housed in the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw.

Together with the reams of archival footage taken by the SS, the copious German documentation of the Ghetto and the voluminous testimony of its survivors, it is hard to imagine that much could be forgotten. And yet, were it not for a school project undertaken by four girls from Uniontown High School in Bourbon County, Kansas, one of the most historically significant personages of the Warsaw Ghetto may have remained in obscurity.

Irena Sendler was not a resident of the ghetto, and although she is reputed to have worn an armband with a magen david, she was not Jewish. A senior administrator in the Warsaw Social Welfare Department, Irena was able to reroute funds to Jewish families before the formation of the ghetto, registering them under false Christian names and forestalling inspections under the pretext that they suffered from highly infectious diseases. Upon the construction of the ghetto, Irena joined a Polish resistance movement called Zegota: the Polish Council to Aid Jews. With the aid of a pass from the Epidemic Control Department, and with food and medicine secreted on her person, Irena found herself within the ghetto on a daily basis.

Few of us can imagine the tribulations that would be faced by one who sought to smuggle items into the Warsaw Ghetto. At tremendous risk to herself, Irena Sendler helped to ameliorate (in so small a fashion) the swelling tide of disease and malnutrition that plagued the ghetto’s inhabitants. But it was not enough, and so she dared to risk the impossible: to enter empty-handed, but to smuggle people out.

In the years before her capture and incarceration in 1943, Irena Sendler rescued some 2,500 children. “Some children were taken out in gunnysacks or body bags. Some were buried inside loads of goods. A mechanic took a baby out in his toolbox. Some kids were carried out in potato sacks, others were placed in coffins, some entered a church in the Ghetto which had two entrances. One entrance opened into the Ghetto, the other opened into the Aryan side of Warsaw. They entered the church as Jews and exited as Christians.” [Source]

In order to preserve their true identities, Irena Sendler wrote a list. In coded form, its meaning known to nobody but herself, she wrote the birthnames of these children and the names that she had given them. Buried beneath an apple tree, across the road from the German barracks, the information might have remained hidden were it not for Zegota members having successfully bribed the Gestapo agents charged with her execution, and having subsequently affected her release. Physically broken from Gestapo questioning, Irena was forced to spend the rest of the war in hiding, and for many years after its conclusion there were few who knew of her deeds.

In 1965, Irena Sendler was accorded the title of “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, but it was not until 2000 that her actions started to become more widely known. It was then that four students (Elizabeth Cambers, Megan Stewart, Sabrina Coons and Janice Underwood) won the 2000 Kansas state National History Day competition with their play, Life in a Jar. A dramatic representation of Irena Sendler’s heroic story, this play not only raised awareness within the United States, but has since garnered international attention as well. When the students met Irena in 2001, the meeting was covered by Poland’s newspapers. In this way, so many who had never heard of her came to learn of her remarkable story; and in such a fashion, Poland’s parliament came to consider ways of honouring her legacy themselves.

In 2003, Irena was awarded Poland’s highest military and civilian decoration, the Order of the White Eagle, along with the Jan Karski Award for Valor and Courage. With her photograph in the newspaper, the 96-year old woman began receiving phone calls from those whom she had rescued as children, the overwhelming majority of whom had lost their original families, but several of whom remembered well the face of their liberator. In 2007, the Polish parliament unanimously nominated her for the Nobel Peace Prize. Irena, who was too ill to attend the ceremony held in her honour, had her remarks read for her by a woman whom she had saved:

“Every child saved with my help is the justification of my existence on this Earth, and not a title to glory. Over a half-century has passed since the hell of the Holocaust, but its spectre still hangs over the world and doesn’t allow us to forget.”

In 2008, at 98 years of age, Irena Sendler passed away. She is survived by her daughter, Janina Zgrzembska, and by descendents too numerous to count.

Photo by Mariusz Kubik

Photo by Mariusz Kubik




One response

20 06 2013

To be brave enough to care enough to find insight into how you can make a difference in such a chaotic and frightening time. It’s one thing to care but not know what to do, but to apply yourself to answers that are that costly? It may not be a title to glory for her, but people like this… something they have is so desirable, and people are alive because of that kindness.

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