Irena Sendler: a true prize winner
Irena Sendler worked fearlessly during World War II to save thousands of Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto and the horrors of the notorious Nazi death camps. Though nominated for the Nobel Prize she was passed over with the award going to former US Vice President Al Gore for his work on climate change.
IRENA SENDLER, a Polish Roman Catholic, died last year at the age of 98. Through her efforts and courage in war-time Poland, thousands of Jewish children were rescued from the Warsaw Ghetto, and from the clutches of the Nazis and their infamous extermination camps.
Irena’s father died when she was 7 years old. He had been a doctor and contracted typhus whilst treating Jewish patients. His daughter opposed the anti-Semitic ghetto-bench system that existed in some pre-war Polish universities, and as a result Irena was suspended from Warsaw University for three years.
During the German occupation of Poland, Sendler lived in Warsaw and as early as 1939 she began aiding Jews. She and her helpers created over 3,000 false documents to help Jewish families. This was a very dangerous activity as all household members risked death if anyone was found to be hiding Jews.
In December 1942 the newly-created Zegota (the Council for aid to Jews) nominated her (by her cover name Jolanta) to head its children’s section. As an employee of the Social Welfare Department she had a special permit to enter the Warsaw Ghetto to check for signs of typhus – something the Nazis feared would spread beyond the Ghetto. During this work she wore a Star to David as a sign of solidarity with the Jewish people.
Under the pretext of conducting inspections of sanitary conditions during a typhoid outbreak Irena smuggled out babies and small children, sometimes hiding them in a double-bottomed toolbox. She used large bags to hide older children.
Trained her dog to bark.....
Sendler kept a dog at the back of her truck which she trained to bark each time she passed through the Ghetto gates. This had the double effect of keeping the guards at a distance and also covering up any crying or other noises that the children might make.
She was caught in 1943 but by then 2,500 infants and children had been saved. The Nazis broke her arms and legs, and tortured and interrogated her for the names of the children she had smuggled out. She didn’t break and was sentenced to death along with 39 other women prisoners. She was rescued by a guard who had been bribed by her friends, and spent the rest of the war with the Home army – the Polish underground resistance movement.
Irena Sendler kept all the records of the children she rescued hidden in a jarburied in her back yard. After the war she attempted to locate the parents of the children she had rescued. However most of them had been gassed along with 900,000 others in the death chambers of Treblinka extermination camp.
Imprisoned by her own people
Following the post-war Soviet takeover of Poland, she was at first persecuted and imprisoned by the communist Polish state authorities for her relations with the Polish government-in-exile, and with the Home Army. While in prison she miscarried her second child and her other children were later denied the right to study at communist-controlled Polish universities.
In 2007 considerable publicity accompanied Irena Sendler’s nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize. However the award was made that year to former US Vice-President Al Gore for his work on (so-called) climate change.
Previously, in 2003, the kudos and the award went to Yassir Arafat, the father of international terrorism. When he died a year later he was listed as one of the richest men in the world, whilst the people whom he claimed to fight for continued to live in situations of deprivation.
Meanwhile in 2009 the prize was awarded to US President Barak Obama after just 11 months in office for ‘his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples’.
In 2003 Pope John Paul II sent Sendler a personal letter praising her wartime efforts. On 14 March 2007 she was honoured by Poland's Senate and in May 2009, Irena Sendler was posthumously granted the Audrey Hepburn Humanitarian Award.
The Irena Sendler Project has created a teacher's award in the United States and Poland for the Outstanding Teacher in Holocaust Education. Project members are now working with the Children of the Holocaust Organization in Warsaw to erect a statue in her honour, to be completed in 2010 on the centenary of her birth.
Irena Sendler with some of the children she saved: Warsaw 2005
Footnote: The National Premier of a new film entitled In the Name of Their Mothers is scheduled for Sunday, 22 November 2009. It is due to be first shown at the Copernicus Foundation in Chicago, Illinois, and details the risks taken by Irena and her colleagues.
The documentary includes interviews with Irena, and some of the organisers and participants who aided in the dangerous undertaking of rescuing Jewish children in wartime Poland from the Warsaw Ghetto.
See also the website The Irena Sendler Project