Heroes of the Faith: Irena Sendler[owa] (1910-2008)
“I could have done more . . .”
“Jesus Loves the Little Children . . .” This is one song most of us have known since our early childhoods. Children were living object lessons in the Gospels for Christ’s teaching on the Kingdom of Heaven. Sadly, throughout the hallways of history, children have invariably been treated as collateral damage. In Poland during World War Two, there were unthinkable genocidal crusades against the will of the Jewish population. (In Europe, an estimated 1.5 children were murdered.) But there was one extraordinary lady who spearheaded the formidable task of rescuing young ones from certain death. Her name--Irena Sendler.
History—Irena Sendler’s “Everyday” Life
Irena was born to parents, Stanislaw and Janina. Stanislaw was a physician uniquely devoted to the care of the Jews, those whom most of his colleagues cold-shouldered; he contracted typhus from a disadvantaged patient and died when Irena was seven years old. Irena carried her father’s love for the deprived into her adult work for the Polish urban Social Welfare department. At the outset of World War Two, when Germany conquered Poland and cordoned off the Jews into the “Warsaw Ghetto,” Irena joined forces with other likeminded partners to smuggle children to freedom.
Heritage—Irena Sendler’s Earthly Labors
Focusing on the evacuation of as many children as possible, she employed a myriad of means--including small ambulances, wagons, even caskets and packages--to hold children as transports toward freedom, until placed in loving homes. Irena and her cohorts inventoried and documented lists, stored the lists in jars, then buried the jars for post-war exhumation. (Sadly, when these lists were retrieved after the war, most families had been exterminated.) In October 1943, Irena was incarcerated by the Gestapo, brutally tortured (both legs broken), and condemned to death. Only the work of the Zegota, bribing German guards as Irena was approaching execution, saved her life. She remained a tenacious and tireless (though of necessity in hiding) champion for the children the rest of her life.
Horizons—Irena Sendler’s Enduring Legacy
Inspired by her father’s empathy, and her established faith, Irena was instrumental in redeeming incalculable numbers of children from certain death. And yet, her humility was a driving force in her life. “I could have done more . . . This regret will follow me to my death.” She would bear the scars of crippled legs through the rest of her life. She possessed an extraordinary compassion and love for the Jewish children; yet she discounted the distinction of the clandestine campaigns, eschewing the laudatory efforts of others. “Every child saved with my help is the justification of my existence on this Earth, and not a title to glory.” Her indefatiguably herculean efforts were not forgotten, as she was honored with numerous lifetime achievement laurels, including a nomination for the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. In her selfless manner, she intentionally chose not to be self-congratulatory. She wrote late in life, “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.” She lived a long life--98 years!--but her legacy was the “life in a jar.” What is one virtue to be valued and voiced from Irena’s valiant ventures?
Recommended Reading For Further Focus:
Down, Susan Brophy. Irena Sendler: Bringing Life to Children of the Holocaust (Crabtree Groundbreaker Biographies). Crabtree Publishing Company, 2012.
Mayer, Jack. Life in a Jar: The Irena Sendler Project. Long Trail Press, 2011.