As the sugar high from trick-or-treat candy begins to wear off, I trust all of our readers made
it through Halloween unscathed. Each year I relish looking at the different
costumes but have to say that this year, I have to tip my hat to our very own
Stephanie who, along with Mac and Jaymee, made some amazing Angry Birds
costumes that can’t be beat. My hat’s off to you, dear smartypants for your
amazing ingenuity and crafting saavy!
We had a number of
wonderful costumes in the neighborhood this Halloween. There were princesses, a
dragon, your usual assortment of animals and a countless number of super heroes
participating in the magic of trick-or-treating fun. Seeing the number of caped
crusaders got me thinking about the draw possessed by the concept of having “super
powers”. Clearly humans are not going to posses the ability to fly without aid or
burn things with our eyes any time soon, but what if human beings were able to fight
for what is right with use of our common everyday abilities? As with many
questions about humankind one need only look at our history to discover the
Meet Irena Sendler.
Also known as Irena Sendlerowa, she was born in “Otwock, a town some 15 miles
southeast of Warsaw”, Poland
on February 15th 1910. (http://www.auschwitz.dk/sendler.htm).
At first glance, Irena who worked as a Polish
Catholic social worker, would look very common. It is not until we take into
account her place in this world both geographically and historically that we
see the opportunity for her to show her heroism.
Irena lived during
a time of great sorrow for all of humanity. She was witness to the horrors of
World War II and the Holocaust. “By 1945, two out of every three European
Jews had been killed by the Nazis. 1.5 million children were murdered. This figure includes more than 1.2
million Jewish children, tens of thousands of Gypsy children and thousands of
handicapped children.” (www.auschwitz.dk).
After seeing the
conditions for the Jewish people worsen Irena joined Zegota or “the Council
for Aid to Jews, organized by the Polish underground resistance movement”.
(www.auschwitz.dk). “Assisted by some two dozen other Zegota members,
[she] saved 2,5000 Jewish children by smuggling them out of the Warsaw Ghetto,
providing them with false documents, and sheltering them in individual and
group children’s homes outside the Ghetto”. (www.wikipedia.org).
The Warsaw Ghetto had been created in 1940 as a means of segregating the Jewish
population. Working for the Warsaw Health Department, Irena’s professional
credentials allowed her access to this ghetto. She originally worked to get
medicines and food to those living in the ghetto. Despite her efforts, “5,000 people
were dying a month from starvation and disease in the Ghetto, and she decided
to help the Jewish children to get out”. (www.auschwitz.dk).As a social worker she was able to with her contemporaries
in providing false documents and new identities for the children. She used her permission
to enter the ghetto as a tool in working with the Polish Underground to smuggle
children to safety from “from 1942-1943”. (www.auschwitz.dk).
The Holocaust Education and Archive Research team
recounts that Irena and other members of the Polish Underground smuggled children
from the Ghetto to safety with use of “various means, such as hiding them in ambulances, or guiding them
through the sewer pipes, wheeling them out on a trolley in suitcases or boxes,
or taking them out through the back door entrance in the Court House on Leszno
source recounts that “some children were taken out in gunnysacks or body bags.
Some were buried inside loads of goods. A mechanic took a baby out in his
toolbox. Some kids were carried out in potato sacks, others were placed in
coffins, some entered a church in the Ghetto which had two entrances. One
entrance opened into the Ghetto, the other opened into the Aryan side of
Warsaw. They entered the church as Jews and exited as Christians. “`Can
you guarantee they will live?'” Irena later recalled the distraught
parents asking. But she could only guarantee they would die if they stayed. “In
my dreams,” she said, “I still hear the cries when they left
their parents.” (www.auschwitz.dk).).
Irena’s efforts were aided by the Church. “I sent most of the children
to religious establishments,” she recalled. “I knew I could count on the Sisters.”
Irena also had a remarkable record of cooperation when placing the youngsters: “No
one ever refused to take a child from me,” she said. (www.auschwitz.dk). Once the
children were safe, Irena used her social work skills once again in documenting
crucial identifying information for each rescued child. “She noted the names of
the children on cigarette papers, twice for security, and sealed them in two
glass jars, which she buried in a colleague’s garden.
After the war the jars were dug up and the lists handed to Jewish
representatives. Attempts were then made to reunite the children with their
families, but most of them had perished in the death camps, particularly
Treblinka, which was used to exterminate the Jews of Warsaw.” (www.auschwitz.dk).
Irena’s acts of selfless heroism in the face of evil did not go
unpunished. She was arrested in October of 1943 and was sentenced to be
executed after having been tortured and imprisoned at Pawiak Prison. Her feet
and legs were broken by the Nazis, injuries that would cripple her for the rest
of her life. Despite their attempts, Irena would not give any information
regarding who assisted her in her efforts or any names or true identities of
any children she had rescued. Because of her bravery, these children remained
safe. After being held and sentenced at Alejo Sucha the Zegota bribed Gestapo officials
for her release. She was “knocked unconscious and left by the roadside”. (www.holocaustproject.org). She would
be pursued by the Nazi party until the end of the war.
After the war, Irena dug up the jars that held the precious information
regarding the true identities of the 2500 children she had helped to rescue.
Unfortunately, the majority of the families of these had been murdered as a
result of the Holocaust. This information highlights the sobering truth of the
impact that Irena’s actions during World War II had on humanity. Despite her
acts of heroism, Irena never thought of herself as a hero. When others would
attempt to afford her that title, she would interject by saying “I could have done more”.
While she would always remain modest about her acts of heroism, Irena
was afforded some high honours for her courageous acts compassion and love. The
following is an account of her awards as documented by website titled “Irena
Sendler; Unsung Heroine”…
She has been honored by
international Jewish organizations – in 1965 she accorded the title of Righteous Among the Nations by the
Yad Vashem organization in Jerusalem and in 1991 she was made an honorary
citizen of Israel. Irena Sendler was awarded Poland’s highest distinction, the
Order of White Eagle, in Warsaw Monday Nov. 10, 2003, and she was announced as
the 2003 winner of the Jan Karski award for Valor and Courage. She has
officially been designated a national hero in Poland and schools are named in
her honor. Annual Irena Sendler days are celebrated throughout Europe and the
In 2007, she was nominated to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. At a special
session in Poland’s upper house of Parliament, President Lech Kaczynski
announced the unanimous resolution to honor Irena Sendler for rescuing
“the most defenseless victims of the Nazi ideology: the Jewish children.”
He referred to her as a “great heroine who can be justly named for the
Nobel Peace Prize. She deserves great respect from our whole nation.”
During the ceremony Elzbieta Ficowska, who was just six months old when she was
saved by Irena Sendler, read out a letter on her behalf: “Every child saved
with my help is the justification of my existence on this Earth, and not a
title to glory,” Irena Sendler said in the letter, “Over a half-century has
passed since the hell of the Holocaust, but its spectre still hangs over the
world and doesn’t allow us to forget.” (www.auschwitz.dk).
Irena Sendler lived out her days
in Warsaw, Poland and died gracefully as an elderly woman in 2008. While she
never thought her heroism enough, the kindness and courage she showed in the
face of evil will forever been appreciated by each child she saved during World
“Elzbieta Ficowska who was smuggled out of the
ghetto by Mrs Sendlerowa in a toolbox on a lorry, when she was just five months
“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” referring also to her
real mother and her Polish foster mother.” (www.holocaustresearchproject.org).
Now, decades after the end of World War II, we can choose to go about
our lives, celebrating only the fun part of our society, hoping to never
revisit acts of evil upon humanity or we can actively commit the scars of
history to our memory so that we can learn from our mistakes and never let evil
resurface. By celebrating those true heroes who used courage and compassion in
the face of the Holocaust, we can celebrate the legacy of their compassion by honouring
those who died and by reminding ourselves of a history which I pray will never
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