Irena Sendler never thought of herself as a person who did anything out of the ordinary. She believed she was just listening to her heart when she worked to rescue thousands of Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943.
I learned about Irena while touring the Holocaust Center of Maitland, Florida. Currently the museum is hosting the “Heroes of Warsaw” exhibit which shares the original artwork of illustrator Bill Farnsworth. The exhibit will be on display until December 28, 2018.
Farnsworth’s illustrations appear in the children’s book, Irena Sendler and the Children of the Warsaw Ghetto by Susan Goldman Rubin. (Holiday House 2011) I was so intrigued by Irena’s life, I borrowed a copy of the book from our local public library.
After the German army invaded Poland in 1939, thousands of Jewish residents of Warsaw were rounded up and packed into a ghetto with eleven foot high walls. Soon a typhus epidemic broke out due to poor sanitation. The Germans were horrified the epidemic would expand beyond the walls of the ghetto. They permitted Polish authorities to take care of health and sanitation inside the walls since they were afraid to enter.
Irena Sendler was a young Catholic social worker who dressed as a nurse to gain access to the Warsaw ghetto. Armed police were stationed at every entrance. As a member of the underground group Zegota, she used her cover to smuggle Jewish children to safe homes, where they assumed false identities. In the book the author describes the creative means by which Irena bypassed the armed police. Irena hid children in coffins and under the floorboards of ambulances. Babies were tucked into potato sacks and toolboxes.
Her efforts were not without personal sacrifice. Irena had become a prime mover in the Zagota organization. Eventually she was arrested, imprisoned, and tortured by the Nazi’s. She escaped her execution with the help of a truck driver who accepted a bribe for her release. While Irena was in prison, her aunt saved the record of the children’s true identities. After her escape, Irena recovered the lists, stored them in glass bottles, and buried them under an apple tree.
After the war ended she gave the lists to Dr. Adolph Berman who placed the children in Jewish homes. Irena liberated four hundred children herself. Zegota saved over two thousand. Most of the parents of the surviving children were executed in the Treblinka death camp during the war.
When asked why she risked her life to save others, Irena responded by sharing something she learned when she was young.
“I was taught by my father that when someone is drowning, you don’t just ask if they can swim, you jump in and help.”
Irena never thought of herself as heroic. She believed, like many selfless people she was simply doing what she had to do. Irena thought the real heroes were the Jewish mothers who gave up their children to unknown persons.
IRENA’S LATER YEARS
On October 19, 1965 Irena was recognized by the World Holocaust Remembrance center of Jerusalem. Polish Communist leaders did not allow her to travel to Israel to receive the award. She was later presented the award in 1983.
Irena Sendler died in Warsaw in 2008 at age 98. Her life reminds me of Psalm 41.
Blessed is he who has regard for the weak; the Lord delivers him in times of trouble. The Lord will protect him and bless his life; he will bless him in the land and not surrender him to the desire of his foes.
The Holocaust Center sponsors educational programs dedicated to combating ant-Semitism, racism, and prejudice. Plans have been unveiled to move it’s location to a newly renovated facility in downtown Orlando which will serve as a symbol of the city’s diversity and acceptance.