The 70th anniversary of the Warsaw ghetto uprising has created renewed interest in the actions of Polish gentiles who assisted Poland’s Jews during the Nazi occupation.
Some rescuers hid individual Jews who managed to flee the Germans’ murderous “aktions” and ghettos while others joined in the Warsaw ghetto revolt, forged identity papers for Jews and participated in other activities that saved Jewish lives. One rescuer, Irena Sendler, managed to save over 3000 Jewish lives but her activities were almost forgotten until a group of rural Kansas students heard rumors about her wartime endeavors and embarked on a wide-ranging research project to publicize her incredible story.
Irena Sendler was working for the Warsaw Department of Social Work when the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939. The department’s social workers attempted to help the Jews who were displaced and impoverished under the Nazi rule and Irena participated in these activities, expanding on these pursuits as a member of the underground Zagota anti-Nazi organization.
When the Warsaw ghetto was established Sendler obtained forged documents that identified her as a nurse who specialized in infectious diseases. With these documents she was able to enter the ghetto and she brought in whatever food and medicines that she could. Sendler quickly realized that she could increase her effectiveness by helping Jews escape and she decided to concentrate on removing children from the ghetto.
Sendler started smuggling street children out of the ghetto but soon expanded as she tried to bring out children whose parents were still alive. She walked through the ghetto and knocked on the doors of families whose children were still alive to convince the parents that their children’s only chance of survival lay with escape.
More than 50 years after the war Sendler described the agony of those days. “I talked the mothers out of their children. Those scenes over whether to give a child away were heart-rending. Sometimes, they wouldn’t give me the child. Their first question was, ‘What guarantee is there that the child will live?’ I said, ‘None. I don’t even know if I will get out of the ghetto alive today.”
Sendler and her Zagota comrades had several modes that they used to smuggle children out of the ghetto. Some children were sedated and hidden under Sendler’s tram seat, in a toolbox or piece of luggage or in a cart under a pile of garbage or barking dogs. Older children were often walked out through the sewer system that ran underneath Warsaw or through a break in the Old Courthouse that sat on the ghetto’s border.
Once a child was smuggled out of the ghetto, finding a secure hiding place for the child was as perilous an activity as the actual act of smuggling the child out of the ghetto. Sendler and her Zagota compatriots forged documents, identified sympathetic Polish families and transported the children to safe hiding places including at the Rodzina Marii Orphanage in Warsaw and at convents in Lublin, Chomotow and Turkowice. Sendler compulsively recorded the children’s names together with their hiding places, hoping that after the war they could be reunited with their families or, at the very least, with their Jewish community. There “records” were stuffed into glass jars and buried in a neighbor’s garden.
The Warsaw Ghetto revolt occurred in April 1943 and within months no Jews remained in the area. Sendler, whose code name for her underground activities was “Jolenta,” was given total responsibility for the welfare of Jewish children by the Zagota underground. She continued to try to find children who had, somehow, been saved from the transports and mass shootings and move them into hiding.
In October 1943 Sendler was arrested by the Gestapo and was brought to the infamous Pawiak prison where she was tortured, but she did not reveal any information about her Zagota comrades or the children’s whereabouts. The Germans sentenced Sendler to death but Zagota members were able to bribe a German guard and she was released just hours before her scheduled execution.
In 1999 a group of schoolgirls from Uniontown Kansas heard about Sendler and embarked on an extensive research project about her life. They created a play about her which they performed in a number of locations. This performance happened to catch the attention of the LA based, Jewish run Lowell Milken Family Foundation who allotted them a grant allowing them to create the Life in a Jar project. This project dedicated to spreading the tale of Irena Sendler, now containing a website, book, film and continuous presentations that have currently been performed in hundreds of locations worldwide.
This is one remarkable example of the goodness that can transpire when we are able to see beyond the boundaries that we think define us and reach across those lines with an open hand. May Irena’s story and the actions of those Kansas schoolgirls come to inspire us to see beyond our boundaries for the welfare and benefit of all people.