Last week Irena Sendler, a true heroine, passed away. Having grown up in prewar Poland she showed true compassion to her fellow human beings, and put herself at great risk to save the most innocent of the German victims of the Shoah, the children of the Warsaw Ghetto.
Last year I had the honor to meet with Ms. Sendler at her nursing home and in her memory I am reprinting the column I wrote after that encounter.
When people hear of those honored as Righteous Among The Nations by Yad Vashem, they automatically think of the most renowned, such as Oscar Schindler or Raul Wallenberg. When asked to name the most anti-Semitic country they usually say Poland and can’t name anyone from Poland honored by Yad Vashem. In fact, of the thousands of diplomats that served in German-occupied countries, there are only 29 that were considered Righteous by Yad Vashem.
The Poles, on the other hand, were under the threat of death if the Germans caught them helping Jews and yet there are more Poles listed as Righteous then all other countries combined. One of the reasons for this lapse of memory is because the Germans put most of the concentration camps in Poland. Another reason is that after the Shoah Poland was under communist rule and there were pogroms in 1946 and expulsions in 1968.
During my recent visit to Poland, I had the opportunity to meet one of the truly great people honored by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations, Irena Sendler.
Shmuel Ben Eliezer presenting a plaque from Yeshiva Chachmei Lublin to Irena Sendler in gratitude for saving 2,500 children during the Holocaust.
The story of Irena Sendler is not well-known as she shies away from publicity, but recently as she grows more and more frail, people are making their way to her home to pay homage for the tremendous bravery she showed during the worst times during the Shoah.
At the time of the German invasion, 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, and the destitute. Now, through Irena, the canteens also provided clothing, medicine and money for the Jews. They were registered under fictitious Christian names, and to prevent inspections, the Jewish families were reported as being afflicted with highly infectious diseases like typhus and tuberculosis.
In 1942, the Nazis herded hundreds-of-thousands of Jews into a 16-block area that came to be known as the Warsaw Ghetto. 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.
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. She re-established contacts and brought food, medicines and clothing. But 5,000 people a month were dying from starvation and disease in the Ghetto, and she decided to help the Jewish children get out.
Irena Sendler began smuggling children out in an ambulance. She recruited at least one person from each of the 10 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.
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 and others were placed in coffins. The children were then given false identities and placed in homes, orphanages and convents.
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 would 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.
After the war she dug up the jars and used the notes to track down the 2,500 children she had placed with adoptive families and reunite them with relatives scattered across Europe. But most lost their families during the Holocaust. 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!”
During my visit with Irena, I presented her with a plaque from the Yeshiva Chachmei Lublin, whose rededication I had just attended. I told her that it was her love of children that gave her the strength and courage to save the children, and it was love of children that gave the famous Rabbi Shapiro the foresight to build the yeshiva. I told her that had not the Holocaust occurred many of the children she rescued possibly would have attended the Yeshiva.
She smiled and her eyes glittered, recalling the children and thinking of them in Lublin, a place that hopefully will once again be a place of Torah learning for Jews of all ages.