Irena Sendler: Mother of the Children of the Holocaust By Anna Mieszkowska

Foreward to English edition
By Alex Storozynski

After Germany invaded Poland in 1939 to carry out Adolf Hitler’s Final Solution, the Nazis initiated the death penalty for any Pole, and their entire family, that helped Jews. Gambling against these odds of life or death was Irena Sendler, a tiny Polish woman who stood less than five feet tall, but whose temerity towered over those around her. Sendler instilled bravery into a secret network of Poles, convincing them to risk the lives of their loved ones to rescue the children of their Jewish neighbors. 

The Germans ordered a wall to be built around the Warsaw Ghetto and corralled 400,000 Jews inside. The overcrowded, starving masses awaited deportation to concentration camps. After an outbreak of typhus, the Germans wanted no physical contact with Jews, so Sendler persuaded the Nazis to allow her to enter the ghetto to improve sanitary conditions to stop the spread of disease. Her real mission was to sneak out Jewish children under the noses of their German tormentors. One slip up for Sendler meant that she and the children would be shot on the spot. Yet Sendler and her couriers shuttled in and out of the ghetto trying to convince Jewish mothers and fathers to give their children a chance to escape. They offered no guarantees that they would make it out alive.

 The children did not want to leave their parents, and they were often dragged away kicking and screaming in terror. Some of them were squeezed into boxes, or stuffed into burlap sacks to be smuggled out of the ghetto, while a barking dog was brought along to drown out the cries of the whimpering children. Others were hidden on empty tramcars, or dragged through basements and sewers, or through the back door of a court building that straddled the ghetto walls.

Anna Mieszkowska has done a great service documenting this important chapter of Holocaust history.  Mieszkowska allows Sendler to tell the story in her own words, and explain how a clandestine network of Poles was set up to handle the children that escaped. It took at least ten Poles for every Jewish child that was saved. Once in Christian hands, the children were fed, clothed and given a new home. They were taught to pray in Polish in case they were stopped and questioned by Germans. They were given Christian names and forged birth certificates provided by priests. Yet their true identities were preserved on slips of paper, so that they could be returned to their parents after the war.

The commitment that these rescuers took was monumental in light of the danger that they faced. Compare this to the world’s reaction to today’s human tragedies. Many of us donate to charities. But how many of us have been willing to house a homeless person from hurricane Katrina, a refugee from the Haitian earthquake, or the genocide in Darfur? And there is no death penalty for that.

Irena Sendler and her cohorts were not angels, but their actions were divine.  By 1942, they learned that they were not alone, and that the Polish underground, along with the Polish government in exile in London had established the Council to Aide Jews, code named Zegota. Sendler was put in charge of Zegota’s children section. At one point, she was captured and German Gestapo goons crunched her legs into a vice and smashed her bones with hammers, trying to get her to reveal the names of the children and helpers.  She did not break, and after three months, the Polish underground helped her to escape.

I had the honor of interviewing Sendler in 2007, the year before she died. There was a grass roots movement to nominate her for the Nobel Peace Prize, but she brushed off her heroism as if it were nothing, saying: “If someone is drowning, you have to give them your hand. When the war started, all of Poland was drowning in a sea of blood, and those who were drowning the most were the Jews. And among the Jews, the worst off were the children. So I had to give them my hand.”

Sendler was 97 years old when I spoke with her and she was outraged by Holocaust deniers such as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. “Ridiculous,” she said. “He should educate himself. Either he is not intelligent or has another intention. He must be saying this on purpose because there is no way an intelligent person could not know this.”

As historian Feliks Tych pointed out, Nazi Germany began “the first war in history consciously waged against children. The mass murder of children became one of Hitler’s war objectives.”

And so it is fitting that Anna Mieszkowska’s book is titled, Irena Sendler: Mother of the Children of the Holocaust. While the Jewish children were taught Christian prayers, none of Sendler’s saviors wanted to convert them. There were 2,500 children in all. At one point Sendler stuffed the lists of children into a jar and buried it in the garden of a home at 9 Lerkarska Street.

But the horrors of German occupation were worse than anyone had imagined. Most of the Jewish parents were murdered. Sendler’s story was not well known after the war, partly because of her own modesty, but also because the Soviet Union occupied Poland and installed an atheist Communist dictatorship where such issues were buried like that jar full of names.  Sendler was harassed by the Communist regime and many of her Zegota colleagues were imprisoned.  For Poland, World War II did not end in 1945. It did not end until Soviet tanks left Polish soil in the early 1990s.  It has only been in the last two decades that Poles have been able to take an uncensored look at their own history. As a result, there has been a lot of digging.

Ironically, it was four Protestant girls from a high school in rural Kansas who unearthed Sendler’s story for a new generation of Polish Catholics and Jews. When they read that Sendler had saved twice as many people as the industrialist Oscar Schindler, they wrote a play about Sendler called “Life in a Jar” for a class project. The play became a big story and a collection was taken to send the girls to Poland to meet their hero.

Sendler told these girls that Poland was “the only country not to succumb to Nazi aggression and instead put up armed resistance… the only occupied country in Europe where for any, even the smallest form of help towards Jews you could be punished by death.” Sendler also told the girls, “I urge you not to make a hero out of me; that would upset me greatly.”  Sendler’s humility notwithstanding, it’s too late for that, because her fortitude can only be called heroic. That is clear in Mieszkowska’s book where Sendler finally receives the recognition she deserves.

This book is available on amazon.com

Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing, especially for tying in her life example to the real-world situations we face like today (Hurricane Katrina, Haiti Earthquake, etc). It is amazing to think how different this world would be if we celebrated heroes like Irena more than war heroes like Napoleon and Ceasar.

    You might be interested to know that Irena is featured as the Hero of the Week on our blog at MoralHeroes.org

    You can read about her directly at http://moralheroes.org/irena-sendler

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