Good Night Irene and Thank You

Irena Sendler

In the fall of 1999, Mr. Conard, a school teacher, encouraged students to work on a year-long National History Day project under the classroom motto, “He who changes one person, changes the world entire”.

Four girls accepted the challenge. Mr. Conard showed them a short clipping from a March 1994 issue of News and World Report, which said, ‘Irena Sendler saved 2,500 children from the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942-43’. He told the girls the article might be a typographical error, since he had not heard of this woman or story. The four young students from Kansas began their research, and discovered a Catholic woman, who saved Jewish children.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OVw1PANUcdg

Irena Sendler – a white-haired, gentle and courageous woman – passed away on Monday May 12th, 2008. Who was she?

Her story almost went unnoticed – an unfamiliar name to most people – but this remarkable woman defied the Nazis and saved 2,500 Jewish children by smuggling them out of the Warsaw Ghetto. Irena Sendler was born in 1910 in Otwock, a town some 15 miles southeast of Warsaw. She was greatly influenced by her father, a doctor, whose patients were mostly poor Jews.

In 1939, Germany invaded Poland, and the brutality of the Nazis accelerated with murder, violence and terror. At the time, Irena was a Senior Administrator in the Warsaw Social Welfare Department, which operated the canteens in every district of the city. Previously, the canteens provided meals, financial aid, and other services for orphans, the elderly, the poor and the destitute. Now, through Irena, the canteens also provided clothing, medicine and money for the Jews. Irena and her helpers made over 3,000 false documents to help Jewish families and registered them under fictitious Christian names. To prevent inspections, the Jewish families were reported as being afflicted with such highly infectious diseases as typhus and tuberculosis, something the Nazis feared would spread beyond the ghetto. As an employee of the Social Welfare Department, she had a special permit to enter the Warsaw Ghetto, to check for signs of typhus.

Helping Jews was very risky — in German-occupied Poland, all household members were punished by death if a hidden Jew was found in their house. This punishment was more severe than those applied in other occupied European countries.

In 1942, the Nazis herded hundreds of thousands of Jews into a 16-block area that came to be known as the Warsaw Ghetto. The Ghetto was sealed and the Jewish families ended up behind its walls, only to await certain death. Irena Sendler was so appalled by the conditions that she joined Zegota, the Council for Aid to Jews, organized by the Polish underground resistance movement, as one of its first recruits and directed the efforts to rescue Jewish children (under her cover name Jolanta).

To be able to enter the Ghetto legally, Irena managed to be issued a pass from Warsaw’s Epidemic Control Department and she visited the Ghetto daily, reestablished contacts and brought food, medicines and clothing. But because 5,000 people were dying a month from starvation and disease in the Ghetto, she decided to help the Jewish children to get out. For Irena Sendler, a young mother herself, persuading parents to part with their children was in itself a horrendous task. Finding families willing to shelter the children, and thereby willing to risk their life if the Nazis ever found out, was also not easy.

During her visits, she wore a star armband as a sign of her solidarity to Jews, and began smuggling children out in an ambulance. She recruited at least one person from each of the ten centers of the Social Welfare Department. With their help, she issued hundreds of false documents with forged signatures. Irena Sendler successfully smuggled almost 2,500 Jewish children to safety and gave them temporary new identities.

Under the pretext of conducting inspections of sanitary conditions during a typhoid outbreak, the children were given false identities and placed in homes, orphanages and convents. Some children were taken out in gunnysacks or body bags. Some were buried inside loads of goods. A mechanic took a baby out in his toolbox. Some kids were carried out in potato sacks, others were placed in coffins, and some were disguised as packages. She also used the old courthouse of the edge of the Warsaw Ghetto (still standing) as one of the main routes of smuggling children out. The children were placed with Polish families, the Warsaw orphanage of the Sisters of the Family of Mary, or Catholic convents at Turkowice and Chotomów. Some were smuggled to priests in parish rectories where they could be further hidden. They entered a Catholic church in the Ghetto which had two entrances. One entrance opened into the Ghetto, the other opened into the Aryan side of Warsaw. They entered the church as Jews and exited as Christians. Irena had a remarkable record of cooperation when placing the youngsters: “No one ever refused to take a child from me,” she said.

“Can you guarantee they will live?'” Irena later recalled the distraught parents asking. But she could only guarantee they would die if they stayed. “In my dreams,” she said, “I still hear the cries when they left their parents.”

Irena Sendler carefully noted, in coded form, the children’s original names and their new identities. She kept the only record of their true identities in jars buried beneath an apple tree in a neighbor’s back yard, across the street from German barracks, hoping she could someday dig up the jars, locate the children and inform them of their past. – In all, the jars contained the names of 2,500 children …

She hid lists of their names in jars, in order to keep track of their original and new identities. Żegota assured the children that, when the war was over, they must be returned to Jewish relatives.

In 1943, Sendler was arrested by the Gestapo, severely tortured, and sentenced to death. 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. She was listed on public bulletin boards as among those executed. But the Nazis became aware of Irena’s activities, and on October 20, 1943 she was arrested, imprisoned and tortured by the Gestapo, who broke her feet and legs. She ended up in the Pawiak Prison, but no one could break her spirit. Though she was the only one who knew the names and addresses of the families sheltering the Jewish children, she withstood the torture that crippled her for life refusing to betray either her associates or any of the Jewish children in hiding. Sentenced to death, Irena was saved at the last minute when Zegota members bribed one of the Gestapo agents to halt the execution. She escaped from prison but for the rest of the war she was pursued by the Nazis.. However, almost all the children’s parents had died at the Treblinka extermination camp.

After the war she dug up the jars and used the notes to track down the 2,500 children she placed with adoptive families and to reunite them with relatives scattered across Europe

But most lost their families during the Holocaust in Nazi death camps. The children had known her only by her code name Jolanta.

But years later, after she was honored for her wartime work, her picture appeared in a newspaper. “A man, a painter, telephoned me,” said Sendler, “`I remember your face,’ he said. `It was you who took me out of the ghetto.’ I had many calls like that!”

Irena Sendler did not think of herself as a hero. She claimed no credit for her actions. “I could have done more,” she said. “This regret will follow me to my death.”

The www.irenasendler.org web site tells more about Irena’s life (under home page and additional information). The Life in a Jar students who brought her story to worldwide attention, continue to share her legacy and the play (Life in a Jar) to people all over the world.   

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3 Responses to “Good Night Irene and Thank You”

  1. The Love of Many Will Grow Cold…, but Not Within This Heart… Fratres Blog News 06.29.08 « Says:

    […] Four girls accepted the challenge. Mr. Conard showed them a short clipping from a March 1994 issue of News and World Report, which said, ‘Irena Sendler saved 2,500 children from the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942-43′. He told the girls the article might be a typographical error, since he had not heard of this woman or story. The four young students from Kansas began their research, and discovered a Catholic woman, who saved Jewish children… Read The Story w/Video […]

  2. Lilo Says:

    Thank You! – Lilo

  3. John A Says:

    The best and the very worst attributes of human nature are portrayed in this article. Irene Sendler portrays the very best qualities.

    There is hope even yet for this sad sick anti-semitic world if there are people like her in the world today.

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