Irena Sendler, the Unknown Holocaust Hero

Guest post from Laurie R.:

Many Jewish organizations honor the Righteous Gentiles — the Chasidai Umos HaOlam — but one righteous gentile almost went unrecognized until a group of non-Jewish Kansas schoolgirls brought her unique story to light. The girls discovered the story of the “female Oskar Schindler” almost by accident as they were researching the Holocaust for their high school social studies class. What is particularly unique about her episode is that Irena Sendler saved almost three times as many people as Schindler, yet she was well into her ’90s before she received the recognition that was so richly due to her.

Irena Sendler was a young Polish social worker in 1939 when the Germans invaded Poland. She joined the Zagota, an underground resistance organization which specialized in assisting Jews escape the Nazi dragnet.

Sendler moved to Warsaw in 1941 and quickly realized that the Germans intended to murder all of the Jews in the ghetto. She initiated a project that involved smuggling as many children out of the ghetto as possible. Sendler obtained papers that allowed her to enter the ghetto. She spent her days going from door to door, convincing parents that their children’s only chance of survival lay in leaving the ghetto. In Irena Sendler’s words, “I talked the mothers out of their children.” Once a child was turned over to her care Sendler smuggled the child out, sometimes by sedating the child and hiding it in a toolbox or piece of luggage, other times through the sewer system that ran underneath the city and even sometimes in a bag under barking dog to ensure that the Germans wouldn’t disturb the transfer.

Once a child reached the relative safety of non-Jewish Warsaw Sendler documented the child’s real name along with the hiding place in which the child was placed. She hoped that the children could eventually be reunited with their families or, if not, at least with their Jewish community. Sendler kept these names in jars which she hid in her garden.

Irena Sendler secured hiding places for the children that she smuggled out of the ghetto, sometimes in orphanages or convents and other times with sympathetic Polish families. In 1943, after the ghetto’s destruction, she was arrested by the Gestapo and imprisoned. She withstood horrific torture but managed to protect the names and hiding places of “her” children. Sendler’s Zagota comrades were able to bribe a German guard to release her and she lived in hiding for the remainder of the war years.

Irena’s incredible story went unnoticed until a group of non-Jewish schoolgirls in Kansas heard a rumor about Sendler’s activities in 1999 and researched her story. Sendler was still alive in Poland and the girls eventually managed to travel to Poland to meet her and interview her.

As a result of the effort of these girls Irena Sendler was recognized as a Righteous Gentile. In addition the research evolved into a wide-ranging project funded by the LMC that was named “Life in a Jar.” It was eventually recorded as a website, a book and was developed as a performance which is staged several times each year for audiences throughout the world.

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