Irena Sendler

The Economist published an obituary on Irena Sendler, a Polish Catholic social worker who saved the lives of 2,500 children from the Warsaw ghetto during WWII. It was remarkable that her courage was not more greatly acknowledged. She was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, which was awarded to Al Gore.

Irena Sendler was allowed to enter the Warsaw ghetto as she pleased, to monitor typhus, which the Nazis feared spreading beyond the ghetto. Sendler would convince parents to surrender their children to her, to place them with other families and orphanages. She pledged to reunite the children with the parents after the war. She kept lists of the children’s birth names and new adopted names, put the lists in a jar, and buried them under an apple tree in her backyard.

The Nazis ultimately caught up with her scheme, arrested and tortured her, breaking the bones in her feet and legs. She was sentenced to death, but a bribe from her employer spared her life at the last minute.

True to her promise, she unearthed the jar and contacted the children. Most of their parents had died in the ghetto, but she was able to place many with their relatives. One of her survivors cared for her in her home in Poland.

As reported by the Economist, far from being honoured she avoided a death sentence from the Communist authorities. The Polish authorities prevented her from travelling until 1983, when she was allowed to go to Jerusalem, where a tree was planted in her honour at Yad Vashem.

In 1999, three students in a Kansas high school decided to base a history project on Irena Sendler, after reading an article in US News & World Report, which listed those who saved Jews during the war, beyond Sindler. (Although the March 1994 article isn’t readily available, US News subsequently published a more recent short interview with Sendler.)

The students created a one-act play, named Life in a Jar.

The story of the students’ efforts is well explained by one of them, Megan Felt, in an article she wrote for Guideposts Magazine, which includes a short video.

The students’ work evolved to a larger campaign, The Irena Sendler Project, as part of a non-profit organisation set up to help, among others, the Righteous Among the Nations in Poland. A DVD of the students’ play is available for a small donation.

Wikipedia states that there will be a television adaptation of the play. Considering how many children she saved, one by one, and the methods she employed (wrapping babies up in parcels, training her dog to constantly bark to muffle the baby’s cries), there is a story here that deserves a much wider audience.

A book of her life has been written by Anna Mieszkowska, Mother of the Children of the Holocaust: The Story of Irena Sendler. The English version is not yet available, although the German version is.

The encounter between Joachim Wieler (International Federation of Social Workers) and her is an interesting read.

There are a few videos on Irena Selder on You Tube, but the following piece by Kansas City KMBC is a good summary.

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