The recent 70th commemoration of the Warsaw ghetto uprising focused renewed attention on the destruction of Polish Jewry during WWII and the people who lived through those days. As always, the question remains -- could more Poles have defied the Nazis and helped the Jews? This, and other questions, will forever remain within the realm of the unknown, but the examples of those non-Jewish Polish citizens who did take action provide history with some food for thought.
One such Polish woman was Irena Sendler whose incredible story of
helping more than 3000 Jews escape the Nazis was almost buried until a
group of amateur teenage historians publicized the narrative.
Sendler was a young Polish social worker when the war broke out in
1939. She became active in the Zagota underground and helped forge
documents that would allow Jews to go into hiding. All in all historians
estimate that Sendler and other Zagota members assisted over 500 Jews
during those early days of the war.
When the Warsaw ghetto was established in 1941 Sendler obtained
false identity papers that allowed her to enter the ghetto as a nurse
who specialized in infectious diseases. At first, her goal was to bring
in food and medicines into the ghetto but as she sized up the situation,
she realized that the Germans' ultimate goal was to kill all of the
ghetto Jews. Sendler began to smuggle children out of the ghetto. At
first she helped remove children who were living on the street, orphaned
when their parents were killed or taken away. Slowly however she
changed her efforts to try to help children whose parents were still
In an interview conducted over 50 years after her wartime activities
Sendler told her interviewers that the memories of her encounters with
the parents still gave her nightmares. "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
All in all it is estimated that Sendler was able to smuggle over
2500 children out of the ghetto. She often sedated the children,
especially the small ones, and carried them out in bags, luggage or
toolboxes. Sometimes she hid them under her tram seat while at other
times she placed them in carts covered with garbage or snarling dogs to
deter the Germans from investigating further. Many of the older children
were guided out of the ghetto through the sewer pipes that ran
underneath the city.
Once a child had been moved to the safe side of Warsaw Sendler
organized a hiding place for the child. Some of the children needed
forged documents that would allow them to be placed with sympathetic
families while others were taken to orphanages and convents. Sendler
meticulously documented all of the names and hiding places of the
children on tissue paper which she placed in glass jars and buried in
her garden. Sendler hoped that the children could be reunited with their
families after the war or, if not, with the Jewish community.
In October of 1943 Sendler was arrested by the Germans and taken to
the notorious Pawiak prison. The Nazis tortured her and broke both of
her legs but she did not reveal any information about her activities,
her comrades or the whereabouts of "her" children. Sendler was scheduled
to be executed but Zagota was able to bribe a German guard who released
her shortly before her scheduled execution. Sendler went into hiding
where she remained for the duration of the war.
In 1999 a group of students
from Kansas City were studying the Holocaust. They heard about Sendler,
who had been honored as a Righteous Gentile in 1965, and set about
recording her story. They were able to meet with her in 2003 and
interview her and from that research they established a project called "Life in a Jar"
which, through Irena Sendler's story, explores the horrors of the
Holocaust through the actions of one brave non-Jewish individual. After
gaining funding from the Jewish run LMFF organization, they were able to create a video presentation and act out their performance about Irena Sendler in hundreds of locations.