Last Wednesday, July 30, 2008, the House of Representatives
passed House Concurrent Resolution 361 “commemorating Irena Sendler, a woman
whose bravery saved the lives of thousands during the Holocaust and remembering
her legacy of courage, selflessness, and hope.”
So, who was Irena Sendler?
Born to a father who was a physician, primarily to poor Jews in Warsaw,
Irena grew up with the spirit of compassion. She worked as a Senior Administrator in the
Warsaw Social Welfare Department, which provided food and services to the
destitute, orphans and the elderly. When
World War II began, Irena illegally registered Jewish families under Christian
names and continued to provide them with aid.
To dissuade the Nazis from inspecting Jewish homes, she reported that
they were infected with contagious diseases such as typhus and tuberculosis.
In 1942, when hundreds of thousands of Jews were herded and
sealed into a sixteen block area known as the “Warsaw Ghetto,” she was appalled
at the conditions they were forced to live in.
Crowded, freezing, without food and hope, they faced certain death by
execution, starvation or deportation to Nazi death camps. There they would be tortured, forced to work relentlessly,
subjected to cruel “medical experiments,” and ultimately mass murdered.
Irena joined the “Zegota,” an underground resistance movement
which provided safe passage and assistance to Jews. She took charge of the children’s division
and directed efforts to rescue Jewish children from their awful fate. In order to gain legal access to the Warsaw
Ghetto, she obtained a pass from Warsaw’s
Epidemic Control Department. She visited
daily, established contacts, and brought food,
clothes and medicine. She wore a yellow
armband with the Star of David to show solidarity with the Jews and to avoid
being caught by the Nazis.
Irena persuaded Jewish parents to part with their young
children in order to save their lives. With
her own life in danger, she smuggled 2500 Jewish children out of the ghetto. She snuck them out in ambulances, potato
sacks, body bags, coffins, and tool boxes.
Some of the children entered the local church through a ghetto entrance
as Jews, and exited the door on the Aryan side of Warsaw as Christians. With assistance from coworkers in the Social
Welfare Department, Irena issued thousands of false documents on behalf of the
children. The children were given to
Christian families with new identities on the condition that they would be returned
to their families of origin and their Jewish roots when the war was over. In order to preserve their accurate
identities, Irena noted in code form, all the children’s original names along
with their new identities. She placed
the documents in jars and buried them underground in a neighbor’s back
Eventually, the Nazis caught her. She was arrested, imprisoned, and
tortured. The Nazis broke both her legs
and feet, crippling her for life.
Despite this, she refused to relinquish the names of those who had
assisted her or the names of the Jewish children she had saved. She was sentenced to death by firing squad,
but was spared at the last minute when members of Zegota bribed a Gestapo agent
to halt the execution. She escaped from
prison, but lived in hiding pursued by the Nazis for the duration of the war.
After the war was over, Irena dug up the jars and tracked
down the children she had rescued, hoping to reunite them with family members. Sadly, most of their families had perished in
the Treblinka death camp. Through all of
this, Irena never considered herself a heroine, but expressed only regret that
she had not been able to do more.
Later in life, Irena Sendler was honored with numerous
awards including the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial’s “Righteous Among Nations” award,
Poland’s highest civilian decoration, “The Order of the White Eagle,” and the
Jan Karsi award for Valor and Courage. She
was also nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006. Additionally, Irena’s life was documented in
the film, “Tzedek: The Righteous” and an
award-winning play was written about her rescue work, titled “Life in a Jar.” She died on May 12, 2008, at the age of 98.
The resolution regarding Irena Sendler was referred to the
Senate Judiciary Committee on July 31, 2008, where a vote is pending. Irena Sendler gave life and hope to 2500
children whose lives would otherwise have been snuffed out. Let us use this bill as an opportunity not
only to commemorate the bravery and compassion of this heroic woman, but to remind
ourselves of the difference that one person’s unyielding strength and hope can
make in a time of darkness and war.