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Irena Sendler, born in 1910, was raised by her Catholic parents to respect and love people regardless of their ethnicity or social status. Her father, a physician, died from typhus that he contracted during an epidemic in 1917. He was the only doctor in his town near Warsaw who would treat the poor, mostly Jewish victims of this tragic disease. As he was dying, he told 7-year-old Irena, “If you see someone drowning you must try to rescue them, even if you cannot swim.”
In 1939 the Nazis swept through Poland and imprisoned the Jews in ghettos where they were first starved to death and then systematically murdered in killing camps. Irena, by than a social worker in Warsaw, saw the Jewish people drowning and resolved to do what she could to rescue as many as possible, especially the children.
Working with a network of other social workers and brave Poles, mostly women, she smuggled 2,500 children out of the Warsaw ghetto and hid them safely until the end of the war. Sendler took great risks – obtaining forged papers for the children, disguising herself as an infection control nurse, diverting German occupation funds for the support of children in hiding.
She entered the Warsaw ghetto, sometimes two and three times a day, and talked Jewish parents into giving up their children. Sendler drugged the babies with sedatives and smuggled them past Nazi guards in gunny sacks, boxes and coffins. She helped the older ones escape through the sewers, through secret openings in the wall, through the courthouse, through churches, any clever way she and her network could evade the Nazis.
Once outside the ghetto walls, Sendler gave the children false names and documents and placed them in convents, orphanages and with Polish families. In 1942 the Polish underground organization ZEGOTA recruited her to lead their Children’s Division, providing her with money and support. Her hope was that after the war she could reunite the children with surviving relatives, or at least return their Jewish identities. To that end she kept thin tissue paper lists of each child’s Jewish name, their Polish name and address. She hid the precious lists in glass jars buried under an apple tree in the back yard of one of her co-conspirators.
In 1943 Irena Sendler was arrested, tortured and sentenced to death by firing squad. She never divulged the location of the lists or her Polish underground contacts. At the last moment she was saved by ZEGOTA which bribed a guard to secure her freedom. She still bears the scars and disability of her torture.
After the war, the Communist government suppressed any recognition of the courageous anti-fascist partisans, most of whom were also anti-Communists. Irena’s story and those of other courageous Poles, were buried and forgotten. Her courage and resourcefulness were recognized by Israel in 1965 when she was awarded the Yad Vashem medal given to Righteous Gentiles who risked their own lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. In 1983 a tree was planted in her honor in Israel. But in general, the world was silent about Irena Sendler.
Silence until 1999, when three Kansas teens uncovered Irena’s story. Liz Cambers, Megan Stewart, and Sabrina Coons (a fourth, Jessica Shelton, joined later), students at rural Uniontown High School were looking for a National History Day project. Their teacher, Norm Conard gave them a short paragraph about Irena Sendler from a 1994 U.S. News and World Report story entitled “The Other Schindlers” and they decided to research her life.
According to the article, Irena Sendler smuggled 2,500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw ghetto just prior to its liquidation in 1943. (An internet search turned up only one web site that mentioned Irena Sendler. Now there are over 300,000.) With the help and inspiration of their teacher, they began to reconstruct the remarkable achievements of this forgotten hero of the Holocaust.
The three Kansas girls assumed Irena Sendler must be dead and searched for her burial site. To their surprise and delight, they discovered that she was still alive, 90-years-old, living with relatives in a small apartment in Warsaw. They created a play about her rescue efforts called Life in a Jar, which has since been performed more than 200 times in the U.S., Canada and Poland.
In May 2001 they visited Irena in Warsaw and began a friendship that has inspired other Polish Righteous Gentiles to break their silence. The visit also made Irena's story known to the world, through the international press. They have visited Irena and Warsaw on four different occasions. Irena is now a Polish national hero and Poland is coming to terms with the painful legacy of the war and the Holocaust. Irena last visited with the Life in a Jar students on May 3, 2008. She passed away on May 12, 2008, at the age of 98.
Last year Irena was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
She lost. Al Gore won for doing a slide show on Global Warming.