Years ago, I first heard the story of Irena Sendler. In the dark world of World War II, she was a tiny light shining brightly; a reminder that there are good people, even in the ugliest of situations. Today is the 8th day of the Hebrew month of Av. We start our days with the setting of each sun – our 24 hours does not stretch from midnight to midnight, but from sundown to sundown and so tonight begins the 9th day of Av. It is, by any calculation, the saddest day on the Jewish calender. What we lost, what was done to us on this day – throughout the thousands of years we have wandered, cannot be measured, nor can our grief.
Tonight we will sit on the floors or our synagogues, our homes, on hilltops and community centers. This is a sign of mourning as we listen to the book of Eicha – Lamentations, as it is quietly read – here in Israel, in our neighborhood, our city, our country, and also around our world. It won’t rain here in Israel; but the heavens will cry with us. And we will wait for some bit of light to come back into our world, some sign that better times are coming.
It seems particularly appropriate to post this guest blog post about Irena Sendler – a reminder that in the darkest of times, a small light of humanity and hope brings forth the greatest hopes.
Tomorrow, wherever you are – please remember that only in the darkest of places, can we see the smallest of lights more clearly. They are a sign, if we have the faith to grasp it. May God bless the memory of Irena Sendler and may she always look down upon Israel, knowing that there are many who live today because of “her” children.
In Memory of Irena Sendler
The recent 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising focused the world’s attention, if only for a few moments, on the unspeakable horror that befell European Jewry just a generation ago. Ceremonies were held and speeches were made but when all is said and done, if our present generation doesn’t take necessary action to ensure that the events of World War II are remembered, the world will blithely and conveniently forget.
Just how easy it is to forget was emphasized by the recent research of a group of Kansas City schoolgirls who reignited interest in a story that had almost been swept into the dustbin of history. In 1999, while researching the Holocaust, the girls heard snippets of a story about a “female Oskar Schindler” who saved over 3000 Jews in Nazi Poland. The girls followed up on the story and due to their interest the amazing tale of Irena Sendler has been commemorated in a project that includes a book, a website and a performance.
Irena Sendler was a Polish social worker in 1939. When the Nazis invaded Poland she joined the Zagota underground and assisted Jews who were trying to escape from the Nazi dragnet. Together with her Zagota comrades she forged identity documents and helped the escaping Jews locate safe hiding places.
In 1941 the Nazis established the Warsaw ghetto and gathered almost half a million Jews into the small ghetto walls. Sendler obtained documents that identified her as a nurse who specialized in infectious diseases and she began to enter the ghetto to bring in foods and medicines. Sendler quickly realized that the Nazis intended to murder all of the Jews in the ghetto and she developed strategies to move children to the “safe” part of Poland. She started by transferring orphans that she found on the streets but soon started to knock on doors in an attempt to convince Jewish parents to allow her to relocate their children.
When interviewed about her activities 60 years after the events, Sendler admitted that the memories of those conversations still gave her nightmares. “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.”
Sendler crisscrossed the ghetto boundaries several times daily, often bringing out the children by sedating them and smuggling them out in luggage, toolboxes and bags. Sometimes she hid them under her tram seat and at other times she put them in carts and piled garbage or barking dogs on top to distract the German guards. Older children were frequently led out through the sewers that ran under the city.
Once on the other side of the wall Sendler’s work continued. She had to forge documents for the children and locate hiding places, usually among sympathetic Polish families or in convents or orphanages. This was not easy because, even among the Polish citizens who wanted to help, there was great fear — the Germans had a policy of killing anyone who hid a Jew, even going as far as to kill entire families.
Sendler carefully recorded the names and destinations of all of “her” children, writing the information on tissue paper and storing it in glass jars which she buried in her garden. She hoped that after the war she might be able to reunite some of the children with their parents or, at the very least, with the Jewish community.
In October of 1943 Sendler was captured by the Germans and imprisoned in the infamous Pawiak prison. There she was tortured for refusing to give up information. Zagota members bribed a German guard who released Sendler as she was being led to her execution. Sendler lived out the rest of the war in hiding.
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