There are real heroes all around us

Published 5:50 am Sunday, April 22, 2018

Irena Sendler was a Polish nurse and social worker who worked in the Warsaw health department during World War II. In a short window of time between 1942 and 1943, she along with a small band of co-workers led a courageous effort within the Warsaw ghetto to secretly smuggle at least 2500 Jewish babies and children from facing the certainty of the German concentration camps. She and her team were members of the Zegota, an underground organization established in 1940 by the Polish government for the purpose of rescuing Polish Jews.

With permission from the Nazi’s to enter the ghetto to help segregate the city’s 380,000 Jews, she came up with a plan to secretly smuggle babies and young children to safety. They used every idea possible to rescue the innocent, which included hiding them in toolboxes and under gurney’s, sneaking them into ambulances, taking them through sewer pipes or other underground passageways, wheeling them out in suitcases, and leading them out through an old courtyard which led to the non-Jewish areas.

She carefully recorded the names of the children on cigarette papers and sealed them in glass bottles which she buried in a colleague’s garden. After the war the jars were dug up and the lists handed over to Jewish representatives. Attempts were made to reunite the children with their families but sadly most of the parents had perished in the Treblinka death camp.

She was arrested in October 1943 and taken to Gestapo headquarters where she was interrogated to surrender information about the leaders of Zegota. She endured severe beatings and as her legs and feet were broken, she was eventually driven away to be executed. With what many consider to be a miracle from heaven, a private deal was made between Zegota and her executioner and she was released.

Irena was later found unconscious along the side of the road and had to use crutches the rest of her life as a result of her injuries. One of the names in the jars was Michal Glowinski, a professor of literature. He said, “I fondly think about her and owe my life to her.”

Mrs. Sendler’s story remained relatively unknown until a few years ago when it was discovered in America by a group of Kansas school children who wrote a play about it, called “Life in a Jar.” The word spread very quickly and now the world is aware of her saving many defenseless victims of the Nazi ideology. She was eventually nominated for the Nobel peace prize in 1997.

Irena spent her last years in a Warsaw nursing home and passed away in 2008. When interviewed, she sternly insisted she did nothing special and is quoted, “I was brought up to believe that a person must be rescued when drowning, regardless of religion and nationality. The thought of being considered a hero irritates me greatly as I continue to have pangs within my conscience that we could have done more. My emotions are overshadowed with the fact that my faithful coworkers, who also constantly risked their lives, did not live long enough to receive the honors that are now falling upon me.”

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