A Real Hero

The word “hero” is SO overused today that it’s possible to forget what a hero actually is. This woman was a hero. She died two months ago, but I only just learned that she even existed. This Guardian article is from a year ago, on the occasion of the Polish government’s issuing a special resolution honoring her as a national hero:

A Polish social worker who saved 2,500 Jewish babies and children from the Nazi death camps was yesterday honoured as a national hero by the Polish parliament.Irena Sendlerowa, 97, who has been nominated for this year’s Nobel peace prize, changed the identity of the children she rescued from the Warsaw ghetto in 1942 and 1943 and placed them with Polish families.
Yesterday at a special session in Poland’s upper house of parliament, members unanimously approved the resolution to honour Mrs Sendlerowa for rescuing “the most defenceless victims of the Nazi ideology – the Jewish children”. President Lech Kaczynski said she was a “great hero who can be justly named for the Nobel peace prize”.

He added: “She deserves great respect from our whole nation.”

But Mrs Sendlerowa, who is in a Warsaw nursing home, insisted she did nothing special.

In an interview she said: “I was brought up to believe that a person must be rescued when drowning, regardless of religion and nationality.”

“The term ‘hero’ irritates me greatly. The opposite is true. I continue to have pangs of conscience that I did so little.”

She was arrested in October 1943 and taken to Gestapo headquarters where she was beaten. Her legs and feet were broken and she was then driven away to be executed. But a rucksack of dollars paid by Zegota secured her release. She was knocked unconscious and left by the roadside. She still has to use crutches today as a result of her injuries.

One of the “names in a jar” was Michal Glowinski, now a professor of literature. “I think about her the way you think of someone you owe your life to,” he said.

Elzbieta Ficowska was smuggled out of the ghetto by Mrs Sendlerowa in a toolbox on a lorry when she was just five months old.

“In the face of today’s indifference, the example of Irena Sendlerowa is very important. Irena Sendlerowa is like a third mother to me and many rescued children,” she said, referring also to her real mother and her Polish foster mother.

From her Wikipedia page:

During the World War II German occupation of Poland, Sendler lived in Warsaw (before that she lived in Otwock and Tarczyn) while working for the city’s Social Welfare Department.
She started helping Jews a long time before the Warsaw Ghetto was established. As early as 1939, when the Germans invaded Poland, she began helping Jews by offering them food and shelter. Irena and her helpers made over 3,000 false documents to help Jewish families, before she joined ?egota and the children’s division. Helping Jews was very risky — in German-occupied Poland, all household members were punished by death if a hidden Jew was found in their house. This punishment was more severe than those applied in other occupied European countries.
In December 1942, the newly created Children’s Section of the ?egota (Council for Aid to Jews), nominated her (under her cover name Jolanta[3]) to head its children’s department. 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.[4] During the visits, she wore a Star of David as a sign of solidarity with the Jewish people and so as not to call attention to herself.
She cooperated with the Children’s Section of the Municipal Administration, linked with the RGO (Central Welfare Council), a Polish Relief Organization tolerated under German supervision. She organized the smuggling of Jewish children from the Ghetto, carrying them out in boxes, suitcases and trolleys.[2] Under the pretext of conducting inspections of sanitary conditions during a typhoid outbreak, Sendler visited the ghetto and smuggled out babies and small children in ambulances and trams, sometimes disguising them as packages.[5] She also used the old courthouse of the edge of the Warsaw Ghetto (still standing) as one of the main routes of smuggling children out. The children were placed with Polish families, the Warsaw orphanage of the Sisters of the Family of Mary or Roman Catholic convents such as the Sisters Little Servants of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Mary[6] at Turkowice and Chotomów. Some were smuggled to priests in parish rectories where they could be further hidden. She hid lists of their names in jars, in order to keep track of their original and new identities. ?egota assured the children that, when the war was over, they must be returned to Jewish relatives.[1]
In 1943, Sendler was arrested by the Gestapo, severely tortured, and sentenced to death. ?egota saved her by bribing German guards on the way to her execution. She was left in the woods, unconscious and with broken arms and legs.[2] She was listed on public bulletin boards as among those executed. For the remainder of the war, she lived in hiding, but continued her work for the Jewish children. After the war, she dug up the jars containing the children’s identities and began an attempt to find the children and return them to living parents. However, almost all the children’s parents had died at the Treblinka extermination camp.

Historically, Poland in the 20th century was extremely anti-Semitic. After World War II, the remnant of Polish Jews who had survived the extermination camps (at least 90% of Polish Jews were murdered by the Nazis) returned to what had been their homes, only to be forced to flee again, by the hundreds, when their former neighbors and fellow Poles began beating and killing the survivors anywhere they could find them. Some 1,500 Polish Jews who had managed to escape or survive places like Auschwitz were murdered after Germany’s unconditional surrender, after the war was over, after it was thought safe to go home.

That anti-Semitic tradition continues to this day, albeit in a somewhat less lethal form. It’s the reason so few people in Poland have heard of Irena Sendlerowa or know who she was and what she did. And it’s the reason why her story moved me so deeply. 

6 Responses to “A Real Hero”

  1. ericnave says:

    If all Poles were so evil how did Sendlerowa get so many families to look after the kids and so many people to help out in her operation. Also why didn’t all the neighbours dob the kids in if they wanted them all to die.

    It is also highly simplistic to claim that the reason she is not well known is because of anti-semitism in Poland.

    As for that 1,500 number – probably exaggerated – other estimates put it at 600 – 700. There was a civil war on in Poland at the time and this accounted for some 30,000 deaths (albeit deaths mainly of anti-semites according to this thread……………)

  2. Kathy says:

    I could ask as well how 90 percent of Poland’s Jewish population could have been wiped out if anti-Semitism was not rampant in Poland.

    Of course there were decent Polish people who were not anti-Semitic and were willing to help protect Jews — as there were in the rest of occupied Europe. But they weren’t the majority. And although the failure (some would say refusal) to recognize the enormity of what had been done to European Jewry and the singularity of Jewish suffering due to the Holocaust was a very real phenomenon all over postwar Europe, the pogroms against returning Jewish survivors in Poland went well beyond failure to understand, or lack of sympathy. Nowhere else in Europe were surviving Jews the target of such significant organized violence. The very large numbers of Jewish refugees fleeing Poland and flooding into displaced persons camps in Germany attests to that.

  3. ericnave says:

    So the Jews killled in Poland were the Poles’ fault? On that basis the Poles killed in Poland were the Jews’ fault….. Try out the following book by Gunnar Paulsson about the hidden Jews of Warsaw.


    In it he claims that in Warsaw (IE THE CAPITAL OF ANTI SEMITISM) that between 70 to 90 thousand Poles were involved in hiding in Jews in Warsaw alone as opposed to 3 to 4 thousand Poles who were Sczmalcownk – blackmailers who were ready to make money out of them. The rest of the population, whether anti semitic or not, would turn a blind eye to the presence of Jews in their mist. Naturally if Paulsson is significantly wrong in his conclusions there must be loads of scholars ready to refute his claims (he did win a couple of international prozes for his book) – so no doubt using google you will be able to find some scholars refuting his estimates…..

    The reason so many Jews were killed in Poland had next to nothing to do Poland’s anti semitism or lack there of. Jews went to the Ghetto because they face the death penalty for not doing so. They went to death camps because they believed they would not be killed. Poles were not guards at the death camps nor were they forcing them from the trains to the death camps. So Polish anti semitism or lack thereof was nearly irrelevant.

    Denmark had more SS volunteers and volunteer divisions to fight for the Nazis than Poland. They also had companies profiting from Jewish slave labour. Of course they also unlike Poland, had a government prepared to collaborate with the Nazis and nowhere near as many people prepared to put the lives on the line to save Jews.

    The difference between the survival rates of Jews in these two countries had nothing to do with the anti semitism in the two countries but more to do with the brutality of the Nazis. In Denmark the Nazis killled less than 2 thousand Danes, in Poland they killled somewhere between 1.5 million to 3 milllion Poles without even counting the Jews.

    Slagging the nation of Poland in an article about Sendlerowa is despicable and racist.

  4. Kathy says:


    I understand exactly where you’re coming from, eric. You’ve made your point very clearly and quite unmistakably. So I think I can just let that speak for itself.

    Good day to you.

  5. Yhnarg says:

    Kathy : Thank you for this post.
    Ericnave : Respect++

  6. jollyroger says:

    How do you do…
    a hero

    Sword, nunchucks??
    Gamma-ray laser taser gloves in sky blue???


    So what’s the f**king point of heroes, no really? Don’t they just act all morally highbrow saving virtues and looking like dicks albeit better dressed dicks than us? But still dicks though, bequeathed with amour or a good seamstress. Showing us up to be A typical inept-lings while they swan in (most times un-asked) and mute whatever quite entertaining cataclysm that was descending down your road while stealing whichever apparently distressed maiden is hanging about the place.

    Based on that alone, they should not be encouraged, moreover culled. Alas 21st century heroism isn’t so slice and die. Everyone can be a sort of hero, so sit down Fatwoman and Widerman and lets get cracking.

    …more at lifestyleguides.blogspot.com

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