Monday, July 29, 2013

Irena Sendler: a Holocaust Hero

The following is a guest post by the Lowell Milken Center:

Throughout the years numerous accounts have surfaced regarding the actions of Righteous Gentiles who saved Jews during the Holocaust. The Irena Sendler story, although one of the most amazing tales to emerge from the era, was almost buried in the ash heap of history until a group of amateur historians -- high school girls from Uniontown Kansas -- uncovered the events and publicized the story.

When the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939 Irena Sendler was a 29-year-old social worker. She was employed by the Welfare Department of the Warsaw municipality and she took care of the poor and dispossessed Jews in the city after the Germans occupied Warsaw. Historians estimate that Sendler was able to assist over 500 Jews locate hiding places during those early years of the war. The Zagota underground, of which Sendler was a member, helped the Jews survive in hiding which included paying for the Jews' upkeep and medical care.

When the Nazis established the Warsaw ghetto and interned over 400,000 people in the small area Irena Sendler secured identification papers that indicated that she was a nurse who specialized in infectious diseases. Using these documents she entered the ghetto to bring in food and medicines.

Sendler quickly ascertained that the needs in the ghetto far exceeded anything that she could have imagined. She realized that, while the supplies that she brought into the ghetto might result in a small easing of circumstances for a few people, she would be able to better impact more lives if she were to smuggle people out of the ghetto. Sendler began to smuggle children out of the ghetto, at first smuggling out street orphans but, over time, approaching families in the ghetto with the suggestion that they allow her to take their children out of the ghetto into hiding.

In an interview that was conducted with Sendler over 50 years after the war Sendler described the agony of those days. "I talked the mothers out of their children" Sendler said as she described the long-ago events. "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 and her underground compatriots employed a number of schemes that allowed her to smuggle the children to safety. Young children were often sedated and hidden in toolboxes and luggage, under tram seats and even under piles of garbage in garbage cards. Older children could be walked through the sewers that criss-crossed beneath the city and through which the children could be brought to the "safe" part of Warsaw.

Once a child had been removed from the ghetto it was vital to immediately find him a secure hiding place. Sendler and her underground comrades forged documents for the children and brought them to orphanages, convents and to homes of sympathetic Polish families who were prepared to accept the risk of hiding a Jewish child. As a social worker Sendler had contacts with many institutions and she exploited those contacts to secure hiding places for the children including at the Rodzina Marii (Family of Mary) Orphanage in Warsaw and in convents in Chomotow, Lublin and Turkowice. Sendler listed the names and coded addresses of the children on tissue paper and placed these pieces of paper into glass jars which she buried in her neighbor's yard, hoping to reunite the children with the Jewish community after the war.

After the ghetto was destroyed Zagota appointed Sendler, whose underground name was Jolanta, as the director of the Department for the Care of Jewish Children. Historians estimate that Sendler, together with Zagota, saved over 2500 Jewish children.

On October 20 1943 the Nazis arrested Sendler and brought her to the infamous Pawiak prison where they tortured her. Sendler did not reveal any information about the children's whereabouts. She was sentenced to death but Zagota members managed to bribe a guard and she was released to live out the remainder of the war in hiding.

In 1999 a group of rural Kansas high school students heard a rumor about Sendler's wartime activities and began to investigate the historical episode. Their research culminated in the creation of the Lowell Milken Center along with a wide-ranging project about Sendler's activities, Life in a Jar, which has now developed into a book, a website and a staged performance.
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