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) 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. 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. 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. 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 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.
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. 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.