I remember hearing about Irena Sendler back in 1998 when she passed away at the age of 98; her story has stuck with me ever since. Now, this woman was a person of real integrity and courage. In a world that reveres football players as heroes, she was the real deal.Her story takes place during the Second World War when the Nazis were rounding up Jewish families to put into camps and/or exterminate them. Irena was raised by compassionate parents; her father was a doctor, and her mother was a social worker. Her father died of Typhus, which he contracted by caring for Jewish patients that his fellow doctors refused to treat.
When the Nazis occupied Poland, the Jews of Warsaw were confined to a ghetto. This upset her, so she volunteered to do plumbing and sewer work as a way to get in and out for the camps easily. Being German, she predicted what would happen to those families in the ghetto, so she took action–hiding children in the back of her truck and sneaking them out. Hiding infants in her large tool box and older children in sacks, she got past the gates. She had dogs accompany her that were trained to bark when Nazi solders came around the truck in order to cover up the noise of young children.
Also, because she hoped they would be reunited with their families after the war, she kept careful records of the children’s names, their new identities, and locations. She wrote this info on pieces of tissue, hid them in jars, and buried them in her back yard. Sadly, many of those parents of the smuggled children would be dead by the end of the war.
When the Nazis caught Irena, they could not find her records. In fact, they mistakenly thought she was working alone—not the leader of a well-organized group that had saved the lives of over 2,500 children.
Imagine! 2,500 children!
She was sentenced to death but not executed. After she was badly beaten, her arms and legs broken, she was left for dead in a vacant field, where her fellow saviors rescued her. She spent the rest of the war working to help save Jewish children in secret under an assumed name.
I was so, so touched by this story upon hearing of it years ago. I suppose it’s because I’m a teacher and mother and can imagine what it must have been like to have someone knock on my door and ask to save my children. (She would go door to door in the Warsaw ghetto, talking mothers out of their children) What a heartbreak to see them walk away—but how grateful I would have been.
I guess her story has stuck with me, also, because I am human. There are so many sad stories out there and sometimes…well, it gets to me. How people treat each other. But, then I hear a story like this. A woman who could have laid low who instead decided to put her life on the line for all of those children she didn’t even know.
Shall we stop for a moment and think about what the world would be like if we had more people on earth like Irena Sendler?