On May 12 of this year, one of the world’s great heroes died with little if any notice-let alone fanfare. Only now is this story coming to light.
Irena Sendler is this hero’s name.
She is credited with saving the lives of at least 2,500 Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto at unbelievable risk to herself. As early as 1939 when the Germans invaded Poland she began providing food and shelter to Jews. Then, as it became apparent the Nazis intended to kill all Jews, she and some helpers created more than 3,000 false documents to help Jewish families escape. Keep in mind that, if caught, not only would she be put to death, but all her family members as well.
In December of 1942 Irena Sendler, who please keep in mind was Roman Catholic, not Jewish, was appointed to head a children’s section of an organization called Zegota, roughly translated, Council for Aid to Jews. As an employee of the Social Welfare Department of the occupied city of Warsaw, she had a special permit to enter the Warsaw Ghetto to check for signs of typhus, something the Nazis feared would spread beyond the ghetto. During visits to the ghetto, Irena donned a yellow star of David as a sign of solidarity with the Jewish people.
What she was really doing was smuggling babies and small children out of the ghetto, often concealed in the bottom of a tool kit she carried. During the typus outbreak she smuggled babies out in ambulances. Sometimes she wrapped the infants up as packages. The babies were placed with various Polish families, Catholic convents and orphanages. In every case, Irena wrote down the names of the children and buried them in jars. Her intent was that, after the war, it would help in reuniting families.
In 1943 Irena Sendler was caught by the Gestapo, tortured terribly and sentenced to death. She refused to reveal the names of any of those involved in the rescues. She was saved from death when her organization bribed German guards on the way to her execution. She was left in the woods unconscious with both legs and both arms broken. She was listed on public bulletin boards as having been executed. She remained in hiding for the rest of the war then dug up the jars containing the children’s identities and began an attempt to find the children and return them to living parents. Sadly, most of the parents had been killed.
After the war, Irena was at first persecuted by the Communists. She was imprisioned where she miscarried her second child. In 1965 Irena Sendler's story began to leak out. She has been awarded many citations including the Commanders Cross by the Israeli Institute. In 2003, Pope John Paul sent a personal letter praising her wartime efforts. On the 10th of October, 2003 Irena received the Order of the White Eagle, Poland’s highest civilian decoration.
She was presented with the Jan Karski Award for courage and heart given by the American Center of Polish Culture in Washington.
On the 14th of March, Irena was honored by Poland’s senate and nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
She did not win the Nobel Peace Prize. It went instead to Al Gore for his semi fictional movie.
Irena Sendler died on May 12 at the age of 98.
Her story is beginning to gain a great deal of traction, not only in Poland and Israel, but in the United States as well, where a play has been written entitled "Life in a Jar" which has been performed more than 250 times.