A test of your humanity

Slawomir Blaut

Irena Sendler, a Righteous Among the Nations, who had saved 2,500 Jewish children during the war, died on 12 May 2008 in Warsaw. She was 98.

Irena Sendler, an extremely humble woman, bridled at calling her a hero. She used to say that her father (physician Stanislaw Krzyzanowski) taught her that when someone was drowning you should help him. During World War II she was to face a moment of truth: a test of her humanity. Like many Poles in those times, in spite of the threat of death sentence, she had enough courage to help the Jews. She was involved in the underground activities of the Council to Aid the Jews, an organ of the Polish Secret State. The Group of Sendler, who directed the children’s department of Zegota, sought ways to smuggle out children from the Warsaw Ghetto. One of the ways was to smuggle them in trams. Early morning a package with a sleeping baby (who had been given a strong soporific) was placed under the bench in the tram and the tram driver who belonged to the underground movement transported the precious ‘package’ to the Aryan side. Another shocking way – shocking for us but not for those who got used to face death during the occupation – was to smuggle children in the ambulance driven to the ghetto by a member of the underground movement. The children were given soporifics, like while transporting them in trams, and then put in bags as victims of typhus. There were cases of smuggling children in bags and waste bins, wooden boxes, etc. Every way was good but at the same time extremely risky. Death lurked everywhere. But as the eyewitnesses say it was easier to get out of the ghetto than to survive on the Aryan side. Many of those children who had been successfully smuggled out of the ghetto were taken to nuns and hidden in 40 religious orphanages. The biggest number of children, over 500, was saved by the Sisters of the Family of Mary. Some nuns who had rescued the children from certain death paid the price of their lives. For example, in Warsaw the Germans poured petrol and burnt eight sisters of Mercy of St Vincent à Paulo, otherwise known as the Szarytki. Irena Sendler made a list of the children taken out of the Warsaw Ghetto in the years 1942-43. She placed the data, containing the Jewish names of the children and their new Polish surnames as well as their coded addresses, in bottles and dug them in the garden. Some of the children could discover their identity after the war. Irena Sendler was arrested in 1943 by the Gestapo. She was tortured in the Pawiak but she did not reveal anything. ‘Zegota’ paid a big ransom for her; the bribed Nazis let her escape and she was officially listed on public bulletin boards as among those executed. She was a nurse in the Warsaw Uprising. After the war – similarly before the war and during the occupation – she worked for the cause of children. Among other things she created orphanages. She was persecuted by the communist Security Office, which was as hard as during her arrest by the Gestapo. She lost her premature baby. In 1965 she received a prestigious Israeli medal: a Righteous Among the Nations in recognition of her wartime efforts. During the times of the Polish People’s Republic she was completely forgotten, which was surprising when you consider that her group helped save twice as many Jews as the world known Oskar Schindler. The decisive element must have been her Home Army background. In independent Poland she received the highest Polish civilian decoration: the Order of the White Eagle. There were attempts to nominate her for the Nobel Peace Prize. In 2007 the Senate of the Republic of Poland passed a bill to honour the activities of Irena Sendler and ‘Zegota’ during World War II. Today the story of her life has been reminded in the media and in schools as a wonderful example of Poles’ attitudes towards the Holocaust. For example, ‘Nasz Dziennik’ wrote that on the day of Irena Sendler’s death one of the Warsaw gymnasiums was named after her as the first school in Poland.

"Niedziela" 21/2008

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Fr Jaroslaw Grabowski • E-mail: redakcja@niedziela.pl