Remembering Irena Sendler

Sallie Satterthwaite's picture

A remarkable story emerged from the mists of history recently, all the more timely to be told at Yom Hashoah, the annual remembrance of the Holocaust.

Four young girls, middle and high school students in Kansas, came across the story of Irena Sendler, a health worker in Warsaw, Poland, who was credited with saving about 2,500 Jewish children from certain death at the hands of Hitler’s troops.

Four hundred fifty-thousand Jews were packed into the 16 blocks of the Warsaw ghetto when the Nazis occupied Poland. Food and medical attention were almost nonexistent, living conditions were appalling.

Sendler was the only child of a Roman Catholic Polish family, and was one of a handful of social workers allowed into the ghetto to try to head off epidemics. Conditions were unspeakable and the people too weak to take care of themselves. Irena saw that there was no way she could save adults – but she could save some of the children, and made that her reason for living.

When Polish social workers were fired, Irena and some friends were able to acquire forged identification papers making them “nurses” and changing their names. Irena became Jolanta and, as a nurse, could come and go to the ghetto without attracting undue attention.

It was hard to know whom to trust, but Jolanta/Irena managed to enlist a cadre of conspirators who arranged for places to take the children. Sometimes there was a lapse of time between when they could be smuggled out and when they could find foster parents for them. A nearby cloister was a temporary safe house, and the nuns their saviors.

The children were so filthy that the first order of business when they were turned over to new caretakers was a bath and clean clothes. There was never enough soap; they borrowed it from neighbors who wondered why they needed so much, but had the good sense not to ask questions.

There were four or five “exits” from the sealed ghetto. One was a church in the wall that ringed the ghetto. The doors were locked inside but opened to the outside world. In the dark of night, the sisters received Jewish children from the ghetto and turned out new little Catholics, with new names, quoting New Testament verses and singing Christian hymns.

Another mode of escape was by ambulance, in which escapees could hide under the stretchers or even as “patients,” real or pretending. In one case, a dog sat in the passenger’s seat, barking enough to cover the sobbing of terrified children in the back.

At least one baby rode out in the back of a truck filled with bricks, and an infant was brought out in a workman’s toolbox. Some were sedated to keep them from crying audibly. Others were carried out in trunks or sacks. A route to the outside was found through the sewer system and another through an old courthouse in the ghetto wall.

Before I leave this part of Jolanta’s story, I feel compelled to ask myself why this story has touched me so deeply. Separating child from parent, parent from child – a family’s worst nightmare.

Put yourself in the Warsaw ghetto. It was hell on earth, inadequately supplied with sanitation or clean water, shelter, food – a place where no human being would willingly remain.

Now someone comes to you and says she will smuggle out your 3-year-old. No way. You’d rather gamble on the possibility that you’ll both make it out alive, together. Could you let a stranger take your newborn out of your arms? At the least, I’d ask, as these parents asked, “Can you guarantee us that they will survive?”

Of course not. The only thing Jolanta could guarantee is that if they were not taken out, they would either be killed on the spot or deported to the death camps.

The low sobbing of parents could be heard through the night.

Eventually, of course, Jolanta’s activities were detected and she was arrested. She said later it was almost a relief not to have to look over her shoulder anymore. She was beaten and interrogated. As long as she knew the children were safe, she could take the torture they inflicted: both legs and both feet broken.

One day the Gestapo told her they had proof she was a traitor and was going to be executed. When she was taken to the place where prisoners were shot, the soldier holding her arm leaned close and whispered, “Run, run, as fast as you can.” She did, expecting at any time to hear gunfire and feel the shell. It never came.

Later she told friends she read the lists the Nazis posted on public bulletin boards and found that someone had bribed an official to list her name with the executed. This gave her the opportunity to assume a new identity and return to the ghetto. Her mission now was to reunite children with their families.

Except there were no families. More than 90 percent of the inhabitants of the Warsaw ghetto died in the Treblinka death camp.

How could Jolanta/Irena remember which child was sent to what home or school after their names had been changed, perhaps more than once? The very tactics used to hide the children from the Germans hid them from Irena and her collaborators.

Reunions were achieved because of the record keeping system Irena maintained. She took little slips of paper, wrote down everything she knew about the child or his foster family, then made a second copy. The bits of paper were stuffed in glass jars which Irena buried under trees in her neighbors’ backyards.

The students in Kansas researched the Irena Sendler story almost exhaustively, or so they thought. Their bond was so strong, they wanted to go to Poland and pay their respect at Irena’s grave.

But there is no grave. Irena lives, turned 97 last month in a tiny nursing home room, still clear of mind and memory. The Kansas school girls went to meet the woman they call their hero. And their hero, astonished that they found her, weeps.

She says she remembers the children in Warsaw, and weeps because she believes she could have done so much more.

There is a lot more to this story, to learn more Google “Irena Sendler.”

Join in remembering, Yom Hashoah will be observed at Congregation B’nai Israel Sunday afternoon at 4. The synagogue is on Ga. Highway 54 east at the Clayton County line. A reception follows, and the public is invited.

For more info, call 678-817-7162 or email slevine@bnai-israel.

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Denise Conner's picture
Submitted by Denise Conner on Fri, 04/13/2007 - 9:13pm.

Thank you for this insightful column. Irena Sendler should motivate us all to make this world a better place in whatever way that we can.

Another self-sacrificing, courageous woman is Edith Cavell, a nurse who was executed on October 12, 1915, before a German firing squad because she had helped hundreds of soldiers from the Allied Powers to escape from occupied Belgium to the Netherlands during WWI.

"She was a very brave woman, driven by a sense of duty, of patriotism, and by the practical living out of her personal faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. She would have wanted all the glory to go to Him."

Edith Cavell Website


Ga. Pines Library

Standing as I do before God and eternity, I realize that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness toward anyone.

- Edith Louis Cavell, October 11, 1915

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