Guest Author - Barbara Swiech
Who is a hero? Sometimes it seems that a hero can be only a person whose actions are known to others. Good people are known to make good things. But what if somebody seems not to take any actions but in fact helps many people in secret? Unfortunately nowadays heroism is defined by intensity of publications that are made. If we are not aware of somebody’s heroism, he is not a hero to us. But there are many individuals who would act in the aim of just, without boasting of that fact, and were forgotten. The same almost happened to Irena Sendler, a simple woman who saved thousands of lives.
She was born in 1910 as a daughter of Polish doctor. She was social worker. She was a woman of weak health (as most of her youth she spent in old Polish Spa that was to help her to recover) but of great will. When the war broke out, Irena started to help poor Jewish citizens of Warsaw. She continued to offer them her support when they were all moved to Warsaw Ghetto. When entering the area of Ghetto, Irena Sendler would wear David’s star not to be recognized from its citizens and to show solidarity with people crowded there. In December 1942 she became a leader of child support department within Council to Aid Jews (underground organization of Polish resistance).
She organized the action of smuggling Jewish children out of the ghetto and placing them in Polish families and other places where they could survive the war. One of such places was the convents of Franciscan nuns, that agreed to take any child that would require help and place them between Polish children in orphanages run by nuns.
The task of getting out Jewish children was not as easy as it seems now. Ghetto was a closed area surrounded with walls and guarded by Nazis. One needed connections (and money) to be able to get through secret way out. Apart from this some of the children had not spoken Polish (before they were placed in Polish families) but only Yiddish that they used with their Jewish relations. One mistake, one omission could decide about child’s life and the future of family that was hiding it – especially that hiding a Jew in Poland was forbidden and punished with death.
It is estimated that Irena saved about 2500 Jewish children. Their records would be written down on small pieces of paper (that Irena hid in a jar) to enable them to find their relations. Although Irena Sendler was very cautious with her actions she was betrayed and imprisoned by Gestapo. She was tortured and sentenced to death. Zegota, how the previously mentioned Council to Aid Jews was called, paid a big bribe to save her life. The death punishment was performed only on paper (what means that officially she was shot by Gestapo).
The new government of post war Poland, that was against Polish Home Army (resistance movement of WW II that Irena was associated with), made people like Mrs Sendler silent – they were not allowed to speak about what they did. The history of her and her helpers remained unknown in Poland and outside. But this is not where Sendler’s misfortune ceased. She was imprisoned and tortured also by communist Ministry of Public Security of Poland.
Although already in 1965 she was honored by Israeli Yad Vashem organization as Righteous among the Nations, her history was not widely known until 1999. This is when American teacher inspired students to make to make a theatre play based on the life and actions of Irena Sendler. When he got to know what she did, he could not believe that a woman, who saved twice as many Jews as Oscar Schindler, is not recognized worldwide. After the success of the play more and more people started to talk and ask about the history of Irena Sendler. Her history became popular, especially when a movie about her saving ghetto Jewish kids was made in 2009 (called The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler).
Irena Sendler died in 2008 at the age of 98. Her life still inspires many.