Tonight I am going to tell you a story about a very special woman from Poland whose name was Irena Sendler. I saw a tv movie about her about 5 or 6 years ago. She was a Polish Catholic social worker who, during the second world war, worked in the Warsaw ghetto vaccinating and treating imprisoned Jews. Being shocked and horrified by what she witnessed, combined with the growing knowledge that the ghetto would eventually be emptied, sending many Jews to their death, she began to work with the Zegota (the resistance organization) in order to secretly save lives.
Along with others who worked in the Polish underground, Irena Sendler smuggled babies and children out of the ghetto and into the safety of Catholic families. She would inform Jewish families that, if they were willing to give their children over to her, she would sneak them out of the ghetto to be absorbed into Catholic families on the outside. As you can well imagine, this was a heart wrenching decision for Jewish families. Disbelieving the rumours they were hearing regarding systematic extermination, many families refused her offer. Other families, knowing and accepting the fate which awaited them, kissed their children for the last time and handed them over to Irena – an almost complete stranger to them.
Irena kept very detailed records of the names and the exchanges so that, should the biological parents or other family members survive, she could match children up again with their families. She was eventually caught by the Nazis, tortured and sentenced to death. Somehow she evaded the death sentence and survived the war.
What makes her story even more interesting is that it went largely unknown until a group of students in Kansas fell upon her story while doing research for National History Day. The students made it into a play which was later adapted to television as The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler – the movie to which I am referring.
People such as Irena Sendler fascinate me (hence the name of my blog). How many people would demonstrate this kind of self-sacrifice? Stories such as this also make me wonder what I’m made of – what would I risk to save others from something as horrific as this? What is it that makes someone go so far to save those they don’t even know? And what of the mothers who said good-bye to their own children in order to ensure their safety? Could I do it?
Irena Sendler and other members of the Zegota were responsible for saving 2500 Jewish babies and children from certain death. When interviewed for a clip at the end of the movie she had this to say.
“Not so long ago it was mother’s day. So today I would like us to celebrate that day in the name of some of the most anguished mothers in the world – the Jewish mothers who had to part with their children during those terrible times. And let us reflect on those Polish women who took the Jewish children in and brought them up as their own – risking their lives everyday and every hour in the process. They loved those children so much that when the war ended they could hardly bear to part with them. So let us give thought to those mothers.”