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2010: The Year of Irena Sendler?

Irena Sendler


I'm listening to the radio a few days ago, and a feature comes on about Irena Sendler, whom I've never heard of. The more I listened, the more intrigued I became. I even bought the first full-length book about Sendler -- Die Mutter der Holocaust-Kinder -- written by Polish journalist Anna Mieszkowska and translated into German in 2006.

Sendler (1910-2008) was a Polish Catholic social worker who, during the occupation of Poland, worked closely with the Żegota group, formed by exiled Poles to aid Jews during the Nazi occupation of Poland. The group provided relief to Jews in ghettoes in labor camps and smuggled thousands of Jews to safety. Working with several dozen other Żegota volunteers, Sendler began smuggling Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto. As an experienced non-Jewish social worker, Sendler had permission to travel freely into and out of the Ghetto to study and treat the constant typhus outbreaks there.

It soon became clear to her that everyone left in the ghetto was destined to either die of hunger or disease, or be shipped away in trains, never to return. The Jewish mothers in the ghetto knew this as well, which is why they tearfully entrusted their children to Sendler and her accomplices. Together, they smuggled the children out in empty streetcars at the end of their shift, ambulances, fire trucks, under grown mens' overcoats, through the cellars of buildings abutting the edge of the ghetto, in boxes, under blankets, in trucks, through sewage canals. Sendler's ingenuity knew no limits. The infants were given sedatives and put in tiny wooden boxes with unobtrusive breathing holes. Young children who could not stop crying after being separated from their mothers were smuggled out in a cleaning-supplies truck. The driver, who was part of the conspiracy, would step on his guard dog's paws just before the checkpoint, so that the dog's bellowing would mask the Jewish child's sobbing. Sendler kept track of the names of the rescued children by engraving them on spoons or placing lists of names in jars buried in a Warsaw garden. Altogether some 2,500 children were rescued. Every Pole who participated in these actions (and there were hundreds of them) risked execution.

After the children arrived on the 'Aryan' side, they were placed with individual families, or in orphanages or childrens' homes, usually run by the Catholic Church. They were given (and taught) new names and identities. Of course, all of the families and organizations who took the children in risked death, since that was the punishment for Poles who concealed Jews during the occupation. Sendler herself was denounced in 1943 by another member of the organization, who gave up her name under torture. Sendler was incarcerated in the Pawiak prison and tortured herself. She refused, however, to give up the names of fellow Żegota members or reveal the location of the lists of the rescued children. She was sentenced to death. Shortly before the sentence was to be carried out, the Żegota managed to bribe an SS guard with a large package of dollars, and he set Sendler free on the streets of Warsaw, claiming that she had been shot while trying to escape. According to Sendler, the bribe was later discovered, and the SS officers involved shot.

After recovering from her severe injuries, Sendler lived out the rest of the war in the underground, continuing to actively aid the resistance. After the war, she and her accomplices began the process of tracing the children they had rescued from the ghetto, using the buried lists and other pieces of information. Most of the families of the children had, of course been gassed to death in Treblinka, so the next problem became what to do with the rescued Jewish orphans. Some stayed with their foster families, but others were placed in Jewish orphanages, and many ended up emigrating to Palestine or other countries. Eventually, they came to realize they'd all been rescued by the same person, and many of them now hold regular reunions.

After the war, Sendler received little recognition for her wartime deeds, not only owing to her humble nature but also her closeness to the Catholic church. However, the new state took advantage of her extensive training and experience in social work, and she rose in the ranks of the post-war state healthcare system. In 1965, she was recognized as one of Righteous Among Nations at Yad Vashem, and, after the collapse of Communism in Poland, she was gradually recognized as a national hero. However, her rise to worldwide prominents came as a result of a play written by...wait for it...a group of schoolgirls from Uniontown, Kansas. The play they wrote for a high-school history project, Life in a Jar, has now been performed all over the world, and the play's original authors met Sendler several times before her death in 2008. A documentary film about Sendler made by American director Mary Skinner has also just been released. There's even a school (g) named after Sendler in Germany.

2010 looks to be the year in which Sendler will finally achieve iconic status, and who can doubt her memory deserves it? There's much more work to be done to illuminate the historical context of her actions, though. The book I linked to at the top of this post is really nothing more than an annotated interview with Sendler, with pictures from her own personal archives and digressions on various tenuously related subjects. The book makes no pretensions to be a definitive biography, but it does conflict with the Wikipedia entry on Sendler (and with several written sources) on several points. Indeed, the book is partially an attempt by Sendler to 'correct the record' on what had been reported about her in the Polish press.

It seems to me like it is high time for a serious (but not dull!) scholarly biography about Sendler and her accomplices. A feature film also seems inevitable. Wouldn't it be refreshing if it were directed by a European filmmaker?

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