‘Readings in Nonviolence’ features extracts from our favourite books, pamphlets, articles or other material on nonviolence, or reviews of important works in the field (suggestions welcome).
Researched and written by Roberta Bacic
Irena was a social worker who saved the lives of many hundreds of Jewish children by smuggling them out of the Warsaw ghetto. She died aged 98 on the 12th May 2008, less than a month ago.
For several months it had been my intention to write a brief piece about this very special simple and inspiring woman. Now it has to be, she died last month silently and peacefully in her home country. I had been struck by her words at the time she was given an award for saving thousands of people, mainly children, during the Nazi occupation in Poland. She then went to say: “Every child saved with my help and the help of all the wonderful secret messengers, who today are no longer living, is the justification of my existence on this Earth, and not a title to glory.” She was too ill to attend, and this statement was read out by Elzbieta Ficowska, who was smuggled out of the ghetto in 1942, at the age of 6 months.
Sendler described her actions as “a normal thing to do” and refused always to think of herself as a hero. “That term irritates me greatly. The opposite is true — I continue to have qualms of conscience that I did so little. I could have done more. This regret will follow me to my death.”
‘The Times’ the day after her death wrote a piece about her that also captures the statements that had so much made me reflect of the relevance of living out daily our principles without looking for public recognition. What seems to be the core is that the issues raised or actions performed are the ones that become visible as they are permanent, we are passengers of life.
During the Holocaust, Irena Sendler worked for Zegota, a unit within the Polish underground established specifically to help Jews in hiding. As a health worker, she had access to the Warsaw Ghetto, and between 1942 and 1943 she led hundreds of Jewish children out of the Ghetto to safe hiding places.
Raised in Otwock, Irena Sendler was greatly influenced by her father who was one of the first Polish Socialists. As a doctor, his patients were mostly poor Jews.
In 1939, Germany took Warsaw. At the time, Irena was employed by the Social Welfare Department of the city of Warsaw which involved working the canteens. Previously, the canteens provided meals, financial aid, and other services for orphans, the elderly, and the poor. Now, through Irena, the canteens also served Jews who were in great need. She gave clothing, medicine, and money to the Jews.
Irena Sendler, who wore a "star" armband as a sign of her solidarity to Jews, began smuggling children out in an ambulance. She recruited at least one person from each of the ten centres of the Social Welfare Department. With their help, she issued hundreds of false documents with forged signatures. Irena Sendler successfully smuggled almost 2,500 Jewish children to safety and gave them temporary new identities.
Some children, after being sedated, 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?' " Sendler 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."
Irena Sendler accomplished her incredible deeds with the active assistance of the church. "I sent most of the children to religious establishments," she recalled. "I knew I could count on the Sisters." Sendler also had a remarkable record of cooperation when placing the youngsters: "No one ever refused to take a child from me," she said.
The Germans became aware of Irena's activities, and on October 20, 1943 she was arrested and imprisoned by the Gestapo. Irena Sandler ended up in Pawiak Prison when the owner of one of her meeting places divulged her name while being tortured.
But no one could break her spirit. Though she was the only one who knew the names and addresses of the families sheltering the Jewish children, she withstood torture, refusing to betray either her associates or any of the Jewish children in hiding. Sentenced to death, Irena was saved at the last minute when Zegota members bribed one of the Germans to halt the execution. She escaped from prison but for the rest of the war she was pursued by the Gestapo.
The children had known her only by her code name Jolanta. But years later, after she was honoured for her wartime work, her picture appeared in a newspaper. "A man, a painter, telephoned me," said Sendler" `I remember your face,' he said. `It was you who took me out of the ghetto.' I had many calls like that!"