Irena Sendler, righteous gentile

On Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, April 19 in Israel, we had an excellent and relevant talk by Yoel Sheridan at AACI on the life of Irena Sendler, a righteous gentile, who saved the lives of ca. 2,500 Jewish children during the Holocaust. By comparison, Oscar Schindler saved ca. 1,000 Jews on his famous list, but whereas his story is well known that of Irena Sendler, although amazing and dramatic, is relatively unknown. This is my summary of Yoel’s fascinating talk.

Irena was a Polish Catholic, born in a small town near Warsaw in 1910. Her father died when she was young and she told the story that his last words to her were “if you see someone drowning, you must save them.” “But, what if I can’t swim?” she asked. “Nevertheless, you must try,” he replied. That simple declaration does much to explain what happened later in her life.

Irena and her family always had good relations with Jews. When she was in school she had Jewish friends, and when she was at Warsaw University during the 1930’s regulations were issued separating Jews and Christians. As a protest against discrimination Irena sat down on a Jew’s only bench. She was suspended for 6 years, before she could get her law degree. She also qualified as a social worker and trained nurse.

When Warsaw fell to the Germans and the Jews were forced into the Ghetto in 1940, the Germans were very afraid of epidemics. Irena took advantage of this fear to obtain a pass to enter the Ghetto to check for such outbreaks. Because of this she became familiar with the conditions in the Ghetto, where she saw many orphaned Jewish children and she began to rescue them, clean them, feed them, and pass them onto Nunneries, Monasteries and to foster parents, usually in the countryside. She was aided in this task by several close friends and she obtained false papers for each of the children.

She made a false bottom in her nurse’s bag and would conceal sedated babies in there, with soiled bandages on top to repel the German guards. Other small children she put in her knapsack. In 1943 she was contacted by a secret organization called Zegota, a Polish group that sought to save Jews, funded from Jewish sources. They offered to help her find foster homes and provide funds for the upkeep if she would join them. She agreed and was made Head of Zegota’s children’s division. She continued saving Jewish children, aided by some Polish taxi drivers and workmen in smuggling children out of the Ghetto. Sometimes she would make three runs a day taking out as many as 6 children. Of course, in most cases the children were orphans, their parents having been murdered by the Nazis, but in many cases mothers gave up their children in order to save them.

After one of their couriers was captured by the Gestapo, they realized that they needed more secrecy, so they buried the list of children, with their original Jewish name, their Polish name and their origin, in glass jars under a tree in the garden of one of her friends. Unfortunately when they retrieved the jars after the war some of them were broken and unique information was lost. Some of the original information was given to Adolf Berman, a member of Zegota, who brought it to Israel where it resides in the museum of the kibbutz Lohamei Haghetaot (Ghetto Fighters) near Haifa. She estimated that she saved ca. 1,200 children who went to foster homes, 1,200 who were taken in my Catholic institutions and ca. 100 older children (teenagers) who were sent into the forest to fight with the partisans. Unfortunately, there is no way of knowing how many of these children survived and were returned to their Jewish families after the war, although the Israeli Government had a secret group touring Europe after the war trying to locate such hidden children.

Irena was detected by the Gestapo and in 1943 and was arrested, her apartment was ransacked and she was taken to the notorious Gestapo headquarters in Warsaw. From there she was taken to Pawiak prison and tortured. Most people lasted only 30 days there, but she lasted 100 days, even though her legs were severely damaged. Then she was taken back to the Gestapo to be executed. While awaiting execution, she was informed by another inmate that Zegota would save her. She was so physically broken at that point that she wanted to die. But, as the line of inmates were being led to their execution, an SS officer stepped forward and said “not you.”. Then he took her through a different door and pushed her outside the prison. Apparently he had been bribed by Zegota. Since her name was on the execution list she no longer existed. The SS officer was later caught and executed.

The end of the story is that one day in 1999 a social sciences teacher in a small town, Uniontown, in Kansas gave his class a task to write something from a bunch of paper clippings he had assembled. One of these was titled “The other Schindlers” and Irena Sendler’s story was included. Three girls were so impressed by her story that they researched it and obtained information from an organization of survivors in New York. Then they wrote a play entitled “Life in a jar,” which won first prize in a competition and has since been made into a movie. Eventually they realized to their surprise that Irena Sendler was still alive in Warsaw, and they contacted her and went to visit her. This visit received such publicity that Irena’s story became better known, she was honored by the Polish Government with their highest award and was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize by the Polish and Israeli Governments. She was also honored as a “righteous gentile” at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem in 1965 and in 1985 received honorary citizenship in Israel. She died in 2008 at the age of 98. She always said that she wasn’t a hero, she only did what any normal person would have done.

About the Author
Jack Cohen was born in London and has a PhD in Chemistry from Cambridge University. He moved to the US and worked at the National Cancer Inst. and then Georgetown Medical School. In 1996, he Moved to Israel and became Chief Scientist of the Sheba Medical Center. He retired in 2001 and worked as a Visiting Professor at Hebrew University Medical School for 5 years.