Irena Sendler, A Heroine of the Holocaust
Irena Sendler died in Warsaw, Poland on Monday May 12, 2008. She passed away peacefully at the age of 98. Her death would have gone unnoticed here in the United States were it not for four students in Uniontown, Kansas (population 300).
Nine years earlier, in 1999, these talented young people began a team project for National History Day. They wrote a play, just ten minutes long, about Irena Sendler that captured her religious tolerance and her bravery in the face of death. Each girl had a role depicting Irena's true-life saga about the dignity of the human spirit. The impact of their script spread far beyond the walls of their classroom in Kansas. Their deeply moving tribute to one woman's courage spilled over into their local community and, ultimately, attracted international attention. Because of that ninth grade project and the examples of courage it portrayed, news of Irena's death in Warsaw was received with tears and expressions of deep sorrow. There are so many lessons to be learned from the life of Irena Sendler and from the determination of four Uniontown High School students who brought her story to the attention of the world.
A Simple Beginning
Irena was born in Warsaw on February 15th, 1910, but she lived in Orwock about 20-km (12-mi) to the south-east. Her father, Stanisław Krzyżanowski, practiced medicine until he died of typhus in 1917. Soon after, she and her mother, Janina, moved to Warsaw. Irena was raised a Roman Catholic. She enrolled at Warsaw University. Once, when reprimanded for sitting in an area designated for Jews, she responded, “Today I am a Jew.” She was suspended for a year for violating Jewish segregation laws.
The Invasion of Poland
By the late 1930s, Europe was once again on the brink of war. As Germany recovered from its defeat in World War I, Adolph Hitler prepared to ravage a sizable chunk of the continent again while the heads of other nations advocated appeasement in the hope of avoiding another major conflict. The former paperhanger in Berlin, encouraged by the mounting concessions from world leaders, invaded Poland from the north, south, and west on September 1, 1939. The Red Army of the Soviet Union poured into Poland sixteen days later to create a second front in the East. Poland’s mounted cavalry proved useless against Hitler’s armored Panzer divisions. Within weeks, the Polish army collapsed against a force of more than 1000 German planes and twice as many tanks. The city of Warsaw was surrounded, bombed, and shelled until it capitulated on September 28th, 1939.
Occupation of Warsaw
Before Hitler's army entered Warsaw, Irena Sendler worked as an administrator in the city's welfare department. When the occupation forces arrived, she expanded her activities to covertly supply food, shelter and new identities to Jews in hiding. At great personal risk, she arranged for hundreds of false documents for desperate Jewish families. Her work became more difficult in 1940 when the Germans sealed off the Warsaw Ghetto to confine more that 450,000 Jews relocated from other parts of the city. Risking a certain death penalty, Irena worked with others, as many as twenty-five at one point, to orchestrate the escapes of thousands of Jewish adults and children, hiding them in convents, orphanages, or in the homes of other Poles. The Jewish community trapped in the ghetto managed to cling to hope by dismissing the persistent rumors about death camps at Auschwitz, Treblinka, Dachau, Bergen-Belsen, Birkenau, Gross-Rosen, Ravensbruck and Monowitz.
Pushing back against widespread denial, Irena managed to accomplish much of her rescue work involving children during the summer of 1942. Her official credentials gave her access to the ghetto, where she, as a total stranger, a Christian wearing a Star of David armband, begged reluctant parents and grandparents to allow her to take their children to safety. Although some agreed, many did not.
She carried a five-month-old infant out of the Ghetto hidden in a carpenter’s box. Other children concealed beneath the stretchers of real patients rode by ambulance to hospitals located outside the ghetto. She and her organization rescued orphans living on the streets, providing them with Christian names on forged papers and then placing them with gentile families or orphanages outside the Ghetto.
Zegota (The Council To Help Jews)
In October of 1942, Irena joined the underground organization Zegota (The Council To Help Jews). Known by her code name Jolanta, she became the head of the children's division with the responsibility for 2500 children who were either smuggled out the Ghetto or already hiding in safe havens elsewhere. Determined to re-unite them with their separated families, Irena carefully recorded the original name of each child on strips of tissue paper. She included the names and last address of their parents and other known relatives, and noted the names and addresses of the families caring for the children. She placed the strips in two jars and buried them. All of the families protecting children were given instructions that they must return the children to their Jewish parents after the war. It was a pledge that few were able to keep since most of those Jewish relatives did not survive the Holocaust. Many years later, those jars would become symbols of Irena’s courageous, selfless efforts to protect thousands of Jewish children.
The techniques used in her quest to save lives were both daring and resourceful. They were often exceedingly clever and always extremely dangerous. Her credentials as a city welfare worker or the papers of a colleague working at the Contagious Disease Department were vital for entering and leaving the Ghetto. On occasions, she would dress as a nurse. A barking dog was used to discourage vehicle searches and to cover the noises of concealed children. She devised an amazing arsenal of ruses to smuggle Jews of all ages to freedom. The old courthouse was often used as an escape route, as was a church, since both buildings were part of the perimeter of the Ghetto. Sewer pipes, and other underground passages were avenues of escape. Ambulances, sacks, coffins and boxes were employed to carry or to conceal.
Arrest and Torture
Irena was aware of the danger she faced each and every day. Her luck ran out on October 20th , 1943 when she was arrested by the Gestapo. She was taken to the infamous Pawiak prison where she was questioned and tortured for several weeks. She suffered broken bones in both legs and feet but she never revealed the names of her coworkers or contacts. After three months, she was scheduled to face a firing squad. Zegota successfully bribed the German executioner who arranged for her to be secretly released and for her name to be added to the roster of executed prisoners. Irena was able to read about her death on a poster that was distributed throughout the city. Now it was her turn, like so many she had saved, to go into hiding. She recovered from the ordeal of her torture and returned to Zegota where she continued to assist Jews to escape until the war ended in 1945.
The Soviet Red Army replaced the Germans in the streets of Warsaw. After enduring the long nightmare of war, Poland, as a nation, was eager to see the sun rise on its new future. The country had lost six million citizens and twenty percent of its territory during the war. Excluding Britain, America, and the Soviet Union, no other country contributed more troops to the Allied effort than did Poland. In an extraordinary display of ingratitude, Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin met at the Yalta Conference in February 1945 where they decided to let Stalin keep all of the Polish territories that Hitler, in 1939, had tacitly agreed to let him occupy. Hence, a new Polish government was created to pave the way to new “elections” in 1947 and by 1949 Poland was officially an undemocratic communist state.
Life Under Communism
The Communist regime labeled Irena and her activities during the war as subversive and she received no public acclaim for all that she had accomplished. Details of her heroism were repressed and mostly forgotten. Undaunted, she retrieved the buried jars and set out to find her Jewish children. But the goal to reunite them with their original families became immensely more difficult than she had ever imagined. In nearly every case, the parents of the children she saved had not survived the death camps of the Holocaust.
Life In Obscurity
During the years that followed the war, Irena remained in social work while struggling to live a normal life. She had married Meiczyslaw Sendler before the war. She divorced him in 1947 to marry Stefan Zgrzebski who lost a battle with heart decease later in the 1960s. One son, Andrzej, died as an infant, and another son Adam was also to succumb to heart decease in 1999. A daughter, Janka Zgrzembska, still resides in Warsaw. As a further sign that her personal life would not be tamed, Irena divorced Stefan in 1959 and remarried Sendler. This second attempt to find happiness with her first husband also failed.
The Solidarity trade union grew out of the labor turmoil of the 80’s to become a major political force in Poland. The success of the labor movement in parliamentary elections in 1989 led to the demise of the Communist Party, and to the election of Lech Wałęsa, a Solidarity candidate, to the presidency in 1990. These historic events lead to the birth of the Third Polish Republic and the ultimate collapse of communism in Eastern Europe.
Righteous Among The Nations
Irena Sendler was still living in Poland under communist rule in October 1965 when she was recognized by the Yad Vashem institute, the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem, as one of the first “Righteous Among the Nations”. The communist government, however, would not allow her to go to Israel, and she had to wait until 1983 to actually receive her medal. In 1991, Irena Sendler was also proclaimed an honorary citizen of Israel.
An Unknown Heroine
In 1999, few in the world had ever heard of Irena Sendler. She was virtually unknown. Both she and her life's work may very well have died in obscurity if not for the four high school students in a tiny community in Kansas. History teacher Norm Conard showed the girls (9th graders Megan Stewart, Elizabeth Cambers, Jessica Shelton and 11th grader Sabrina Coons) a five-year-old clipping from U.S. News and World Report. The article, entitled “Other Schindlers”, credited Irena Sendler with saving the lives of 2500 Jewish children in Warsaw during WWII. Even Mr. Conard was a little skeptical because he had never heard about this person before and the number 2500 seemed incredible. So he suggested to the students that they research this obscure social worker for that year's National History Day competition. They agreed to make Irena the topic of their team project. It was a decision that not only would attract national acclaim and worldwide attention but one that would take them halfway around the world
The Life in a Jar Project
On September 23, 1999 Irena Sendler’s forty-nine year old son Adam died of heart decease in Poland and, by a strange happenstance, that was also the day that the Life in a Jar/Irena Sendler Project was begun in Kansas. Within a year, interest in this ten-minute play about the holocaust and its cast of high school students had spread beyond the school, beyond the community, and into the spotlight of the international media. Amazingly, it succeeded in focusing the attention of the world on the heroic life of a simple but determined woman who had once risked everything including her life to save thousands.
Some Take Notice
The following year became a very busy year for the students. For one thing, they were interviewed about their project by both regional and national new outlets. Then the girls decided that they would search for Irena’s final resting-place. Imagine their surprise when they discovered that she was still alive and living in Warsaw. They contacted her and began to correspond with her regularly. She was 90 years old and living a quiet life in a nursing home. Few of her neighbors were aware of her exploits during the war even though she had received recognition from Yad Vashem in 1965 and support from the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous in New York City. The communists had been very effective in burying her story even in her own country.
Irena wrote to the students about her reaction to the “Life in a Jar” project. “My emotion is being shadowed,” she said, “by the fact that no one from the circle of my faithful coworkers, who constantly risked their lives, could live long enough to enjoy all the honors that now are falling upon me.... I can't find the words to thank you, my dear girls.... Before the day you have written the play "Life in a Jar" -- nobody in my own country and in the whole world cared about my person and my work during the war...”
In 2001, the girls, their parents, and their history teacher Norm Conard went to Poland to meet Irena for the first time. A businessman who had seen a performance of their play raised the money for the trip. AP, USAToday, and CNN picked up the story of their journey. The coverage of Irena Sendler was beginning to spread to the international press.
And More Took Notice
In March of the following year, Kansas City celebrated the first Irena Sendler Day and in July the project founders made their second trip to Poland. This time they were thrilled to have twenty-four interviews with the heroine of their “Life in a Jar” playlet. Their visits together received widespread media coverage.
In 2003, the students joined Stefanie Seltzer, President of the World Federation of Jewish Survivors of the Holocaust, in nominating Irena Sendler for the Jan Karski award for Valor and Courage that is presented annually by the American Center of Polish Culture in Washington, D.C.. Too frail to travel to the Washington, Irena is represented by Jolanta Kwasniewska, former first lady of the Republic of Poland, who accepted the honor on Irena’s behalf.
The Momentum Continues
2003 – Irena was awarded the Order of the White Eagle, Poland's highest civilian decoration.
October 2003 - Irena received a personal letter from Pope John Paul II praising her actions during the war.
November 2003 - Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski acknowledged Irena and her accomplishments.
August 2004 - Irena Sendler's memoir " Mother of the Children of the Holocaust", as told to Anna Mieszkowska, was published in Poland.
May 2005 – The students travel to Poland on their 3rd trip amid much press and public notice.
June 2005 - Irena Sendler Day was celebrated in Warsaw.
June 2005 - Life in a Jar was performed before 200 child survivors in Zakopane, Poland.
2006 - The Children of the Holocaust Association and the American "Life in a Jar" Foundation, with support from the Polish foreign ministry, established the Irena Sendler Award "For Healing the World."
April 2006 – The 1st Irena Sendler Award is given in Warsaw.
May 2006 – The 200th presentation of Life in a Jar was performed in New Bedford, Mass.
April 11, 2007 - Irena was inducted into the Order of the Smile. At age 97 she is the oldest Knight to ever receive this honor.
2009 - The Audrey Hepburn Foundation posthumously awarded Irena Sendler with its 2009 Humanitarian Award for saving Jewish children of the holocaust.
April 15, 2009 - The CBS movie “The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler” had its world premiere in Fort Scott, Kansas. The film aired nationwide for the first time on CBS Sunday, April 19, 2009.
Another Oskar Schindler?
Many have compared Irena to the Czech born industrialist who initially set out to exploit cheap Jewish laborers in Poland during the German occupation. The 1944 article in U.S. News and World Report that inspired the “Life in a Jar” project was entitled “Other Schindlers”. Oskar Schindler achieved world acclaim after Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film “Schindler’s List” won 7 Oscars, some 63 other awards and 21 assorted nominations. In that same year, Schindler was awarded theYad Vashem medal as a Righteous Among The Nations. He was the only member of the Nazi Party to receive this honor. It was bestowed on Irena Sendler 28 years earlier. Irena, it should be noted, was arrested and tortured by the Gestapo, a fate that Schindler never had to endure. Schindler knew personally the people he helped save while Irena risked her life to rescue strangers. Schindler saved about 1100 Jews from being gassed at the Auschwitz concentration camp. Irena saved more than 2,500 men, women, and children during the German occupation of Poland.
The 2007 Nobel Peace Prize
Irena Sendler was the last survivor of the Children's Section of the Warsaw Żegota Council to Assist Jews, which she had headed from January 1943 until the end of the war. She was nominated for the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize in a petition organized by the Polish Jews Forum, Polish President Lech Kaczyński and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. At a special session of the upper house on March 14, 2007, Polish President Lech Kaczynski introduced a unanimous resolution praising Irena Sendler for saving "the most defenseless victims of the Nazi ideology: the Jewish children." He referred to her as a "great heroine who can be justly named for the Nobel Peace Prize. She deserves great respect from our whole nation." Irena Sendler did not win the Nobel Peace Prize that year. Instead, it was awarded to Al Gore and a slide show about global warming.
The Young Ladies From Kansas
Prior to 1999, a search of the Internet found only a few pages that mentioned Irena Sendler and her exploits during the war. A recent count revealed that Irena is mentioned today on over 80,000 web sites. Four high school students in rural Kansas and their play “Life in a Jar” have been justly recognized as being responsible for this remarkable achievement. Together, they have saved Irena's life story to the benefit of the world’s future generations. Irena’s biographer, Anna Mieszkowska, has stated, "Everybody I talked to in working on this book, said that international and Polish interest in Irena Sendler’s activities was begun and provoked by the activities of the Kansas girls and popularization in the American media." The world truly owes them a debt of gratitude.
Irena Sendler - Life In A Jar
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