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Passover Heroes

Updated on May 29, 2011

I was once asked what did I see as my purpose for my artilcles, what was the ultimate goal I was trying to achieve. Whereas many Karaite scholars are still tightly wound in trying to decipher every word of the Torah, a path that I see doomed to follow in the footsteps of our Rabbinic brethren who did so and eventually produced the Talmud, I see my purpose to teach those willing to listen that Karaism is about looking at the bigger picture. Seeing God's design not in the syllables of each word but in the story that each word produces when united into paragraphs. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts and we must understand that to appreciate what God has given us in the Torah.

Similarly, I have been told, not asked, but told, that there was no point to the Passover Seder or meal. That it was an archaic practice from three thousand years ago and this was followed by the comment, "Get over it!" Again, these are people that are focused on the singularity of the words and do not see the plurality of their meaning. The Seder celebration is not about the events that occurred when we were slaves in Egypt. Instead it is a story of our very existence today. We are still slaves, oppressed in many other ways and we have to recognize that to understand the story of the Passover. Whether we wish to acknowledge it or not, there are many of us around the world that are still oppressed, still slandered, still attacked and humiliated. This has been our history since our inception and that is what the Passover story is trying to tell us. That even in the darkest of times, God remembers and sends us a saviour, one who will lead us from the darkness and ensure our survival.

So for those that don't want to remember Moses as he is an ancient figure with little relevance today, even though the monotheism he introduced has directly affected half the world's population, then let's talk about the others this Passover. The other saviours that rescued us in our darkest hours and ensured that as a people we would always survive. The Moses I will talk about died only three years ago but so few will actually know her name. As high priest, it is my obligation to teach you the lessons of this world, so it is my intent that after today you will never forget her name, and at the seder meal this year you will give thanks for her existence and pray that in our time of need God will always send us an Irena Sendler.

Irena Sendler

I don’t want this woman’s name to be lost from the pages of history.  I want her name to be on our lips every Passover along with all the others that ensured our existence as a people.  I don’t want any of us Jews to ever forget that there were those that risked their lives for us for no other reason that they were good people.  I don’t want this world to rewrite history as it is doing now to erase any traces of the Holocaust and the victimization of the Jewish people for 1800 years.  My family members did not experience the Warsaw Ghettos, the cattle cars, the showers and the ovens.   Instead they were driven happily off to Theriesenstadt in Czechoslovakia, thinking that they were going to a vacation resort only to meet their fate locked in close quarters where they ultimately died from disease and dysentery.  Such was the fate of Austrian Jews that had achieved renown in that country for loyalty and military service.  Others like, Rikhail Iosefnova Goldenthal kept defying the Nazis and their underlings by flaunting her immune Karaite status in their faces until they could no longer tolerate her humanitarian efforts to her fellow Jews in Odessa and executed her along with the people she protected.  And the few of the family that ran afoul of the Nazi regime in Romania were merely shot.  Fortunately for them it was a quick and instantaneous death. 

But this woman, this Irena Sendler, she went far beyond most others when it came to saving lives of people she did not know.  It was not an isolated event over her 98 years of life.  It was her life.  From her early childhood she began risking everything to save others.  And next month, May 2011,  her life will be portrayed in a movie and for those that don’t have PBS I suggest you find a friend that does so that you can sit on their couch and watch a woman of amazing courage.  This is not a movie that should have been  relegated to PBS, not when studios are producing absolute crap for the big screen.  This is a life that all of us should be exposed to with the hope that even a small scrap of her exemplary dedication to humanity will rub off.  Sadly, it seems most of Irena’s history has always been kept closeted from the western world whereas Eastern Europe has known her well.

Surrounded by some of the children she saved.
Surrounded by some of the children she saved.

The Life of a Hero

Sendler was born as Irena Krzyzanowski on 15 February 1910 in Warsaw.  Her father was a physician but he died in February 1917 of typhus contracted while treating patients his colleagues refused to treat; many of those patients were Jews. And that provided Irena with the desire to dedicate her life not in the way her father did but in manners that far exceeded him. After his death, Jewish community leaders offered to pay for Sendler's education but when she arrived at the university she was disgusted and offended by the ‘Separation of the Jews’ seating system that existed and was suspended from Warsaw University for three years

As soon as the Germans invaded Poland in September 1939, she began aiding the Jewish community. She and her helpers created over 3,000 false documents to help Jewish families survive the occupation.  She then joined the organized resistance movement known as Żegota and had herself assigned to the children's division. She knew if she was caught she would face the death penalty; she didn’t care.

In December 1942, the newly created Żegota (the Council to Aid Jews) nominated her (by her cover name Jolanta) to head its children's section. Having obtained employment in the Social Welfare Department, she had a special permit to enter the Warsaw Ghetto to check for signs of typhus as the Germans feared the disease would spread outside the confines of the ghetto and affect them   During these visits, she wore the yellow Star of David as a sign of solidarity with the Jewish people.  She cooperated with the Children's Section of the Municipal Administration, linked with the RGO (Central Welfare Council), a Polish relief organization that was tolerated under German supervision. Using those umbrella organizations, she organized the smuggling of Jewish children out of the Ghetto, carrying them out in boxes, suitcases and trolleys and the larger children in ambulances and trams.

Once outside the ghetto, the children were placed with Polish families through the offices of the Warsaw Orphanage of the Sisters of the Family of Mary, or  directly through convents such as the Little Sister Servants of the Blessed Virgin Mary Conceived Immaculate. Some of the children were smuggled to the priests in parish rectories. She buried lists of their real names in jars in order to keep track of their original and new identities in the hope that when the war was over they would be able to return the children to their Jewish relatives.

In 1943, Sendler was arrested by the Gestapo, severely tortured, and sentenced to death. The Żegota saved her by bribing German guards on the way to her execution. She was left in the woods, unconscious and with broken arms and legs but she was a strong and determined woman and she survived.  Afterwards she was listed on public bulletin boards as among those executed providing her with anonymity and the ability to move beneath the radar. After the war, she dug up the jars containing the 2,500 children's identities and attempted to find the children and return them to their parents but unfortunately, most all of their parents had been killed at the death camps.

It is not as if this woman’s efforts were not known; only in the Western world, or should I say North America has she faded into obscurity.  In 1965, Sendler was recognized by Yad Vashem as one of the Righteous Gentiles.  She also was awarded the Commander's Cross by the Israeli Institute.  The Polish Communist government allowed her to travel abroad, to receive the award in Israel, a sign of their own respect for this amazing lady.

In 2003, Pope John Paul II sent Sendler a personal letter praising her wartime efforts. On 10 October 2003 she received the Order of the White Eagle, Poland's highest civilian decoration, On 14 March 2007, Sendler was honored by the Polish senate but at age 97, she was unable to leave her nursing home to receive the honor, but she sent a statement through Elżbieta Ficowska, whom Sendler had saved as an infant. Polish President Lech Kaczyński stated she "can justly be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in an effort to raise the world’s awareness of this not only national but world treasure.  And on 11 April 2007, she received the Order of the Smile, the oldest recipient of that particular award.

Irena Sendler died on May 1, 2008 in Warsaw and a year later she was posthumously granted the Audrey Hepburn Humanitarian Award presented to persons and organizations recognized for helping children. In its citation it praised her as an amazing woman.  I would like to go further.  She was a modern day Moses saving the children from the German Pharaoh that was determined to see us exterminated.  She guarded us from the terror, she shielded us without any fear for her own life, she performed miracles that so few others were capable of doing, and she ensured our survival.  So this Passover, set aside a glass of wine for Irena Sendler and understand why it is that after 3000 years we still celebrate the Passover Seder.

In Conclusion

American filmmaker Mary Skinner began working on a historical documentary film based on the memoires that Irena Sendler told to Anna Mieszkowska in 2003.  Filmed in Poland and the US with Polish cinematographers Andrzej Wolf and Slawomir Grunberg, the film uses evocative location footage of Irena Sendler's wartime apartment, Żegota headquarters, Gestapo headquarters and the Pawiak Prison along with rare footage of the city during the German occupation to vividly re-create the events of Sendler's life. This is the first historical documentary made outside Poland to record the true story of Irena Sendler and the daring conspiracy of women who worked with her to save the children of the Warsaw ghetto. Skinner recorded over 70 hours of interview material for the film and spent seven years consulting archives, historical experts and eyewitnesses in the US and Poland to uncover many unknown details about their operation. The film's US broadcast premiere is scheduled for May of 2011.  I encourage all of you to watch this woman’s amazing life on PBS and remember that because of people like her we are still alive.

Oh, what happened about that Nobel Peace Prize nomination, you ask?  She LOST.  Al Gore won for doing a slide show on Global Warming which as we all know now was based on both fact and fiction and Global Warming is now known as Climate Change, an event that the world experiences every 13000 years as the Earth perambulates.  I hope Gore watches the show and feels somewhat guilty of taking the prize from someone who truly deserved it.  Someone that lived her life for the ultimate peace and mankind; someone who never made a cent, let alone the millions that Al Gore has made from his error fraught movie.  Don’t let the memory of this women fade away.  Don’t let the worst event in the history of our people get glossed over and then erased from history.  This woman represented humanity.  She and her colleagues were everything that most of us will never be.  She was a voice in the wilderness that shouted out to the rest of us what was right and what was wrong.  We have many wrongs being performed now. It is time that the world emulates Irena Sendler and stands up for the principles she held so dearly.  From this woman’s life we can comprehend peace, understand heroism and know true love.


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    • RTalloni profile image

      RTalloni 7 years ago from the short journey

      God used many "ordinary" people in many countries to rescue Jewish people from the holocaust. There is much we cannot understand from our human perspective, but I praise God that the record of some of these extraordinarily brave souls that He used has been preserved. Thank you so much for posting these details of this precious woman's life. Bravo for your last paragraph.

      I have seen this website that you might be interested in: