Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Irena Sendler of the Chasidei Umos HaOlam

Irena Sendler of the Chasidei Umos HaOlam

by guest blogger

Yad Vashem was established in 1953 by Israel's Remembrance Authority with the stated mission of honoring the Chasidei Umos HaOlam. As part of their answer to the  dilemma of how to memorize the victims Yad Vashem established a program which honors the Righteous Among the Nations -- gentiles who put their lives at risk to rescue Jews.

Over the years Yad VaShem has honored tens of thousands of people including, in 1965, a Polish woman by the name of Irena Sendler. Sendler is credited with having saved over 3000 Jewish lives, almost two thirds more than the more well-known Oskar Schindler of "Schindler's List" renown.  

In 1999 a group of students from Kansas City  researched the events surrounding Sendler's activities, documented their findings and actually met with the then-98-year-old Sendler before creating a project "Life in a Jar" which relates the Irena Sendler story.

Irena Sendler was a young social worker in Poland when the Germans invaded in 1939. She joined the Zagota -- a Polish underground group that specialized in assisting Jews. Over the course of the first two years of the war Sendler helped forge documents and locate hiding places for Jews who were fleeing the Nazis -- accounts estimate that she helped over 500 Jews escape from the Nazis.  

In 1941 Sendler obtained false documents which identified her as a nurse. She was able to enter the Warsaw Ghetto with food and medicines but once she saw the situation in the ghetto Sendler's mission turned into what she could bring out of the ghetto rather than what she could bring in. She realized that the Nazis intended to murder the Jews and she felt that the best chance for saving lives lay in removing as many children from the ghetto as possible. Sendler began to smuggle children out of the ghetto, picking up orphans from the street and bringing them out by sedating them and ferrying them in luggage, bags, toolboxes, and even under carts filled with garbage.

Sendler then began to go door to door in the ghetto. She begged parents to allow her to take their children. This was traumatic for the parents, who had to decide where their children's best chance of survival lay, and also for Sendler herself who later told historians "I talked the mothers out of their children" Sendler described the heartwrenching scenes that she experienced, day after day, as she took children from their families. "Those scenes over whether to give a child away were heart-rending. Sometimes, they wouldn't give me the child. Their first question was, 'What guarantee is there that the child will live?' I said, 'None. I don't even know if I will get out of the ghetto alive today."

As perilous as smuggling the children out of the ghetto was -- via a secret passage through the Old Courthouse that stood on the edge of the ghetto, under tram seats and even through the sewer pipes that ran under the city -- the next part of the rescue operation was just as difficult. Sendler and her Zagota comrades had to forge documents for the children and find suitable hiding places for them. Many children were placed in convents or orphanages while others were hidden with sympathetic Polish families.

Yad Vashem Museum
Sendler carefully recorded the names of the children on tissue paper which she then closed in glass jars and buried in her neighbor's garden. She wanted to ensure that, after the war, the children could be reunited with their families if possible or, if not, at least with their Jewish community.

In October 1943 Sendler was arrested by the Germans who interned her in the infamous Pawiak prison. Throughout the torture which included breaking  both of her legs Sendler never divulged any information about "her" children.  Zagota members obtained her release by bribing a guard just as Sendler was being led to her execution. She  lived out the rest of the war in hiding.

In addition to the 1965 Yad Vashem commemoration Sendler was honored by the Life in a Jar project run by the LMC. Life in a Jar includes a book, a website and a performance which has been viewed by audiences throughout the world.  

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