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Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Self-Sacrifice and You: Lessons from Irena Sendler


27 Sivan, 5773

Today's post is a time-out for a look at history. One brave woman reached deep within herself to muster up the courage to deal with life-threatening circumstances.

The Self Sacrifice of Irena Sendler

Jewish sages tell us that the reward for doing acts of chessed (kindness) is a long life. (Tosfos, Rosh Hashana 18a). According to this view Irena Sendler, a non-Jewish woman who saved thousands of Jewish lives during WWII, should have lived well beyond the 100 years that she did live, but her long life is a testament to her amazing acts of bravery in the face of the Nazi killing machine.

Born February 15 1910, Irena Sendler was a young Polish social worker in 1939. When the Nazis invaded Poland Sendler joined the Zagota underground which was devoted to assisting Jews escape from the German dragnet. Over the course of the next few years she and her comrades managed to assist over 500 Jews find safe hiding places throughout Poland.

In 1941 the Nazis established the Warsaw Ghetto and interned hundreds of thousands of Jews within the ghetto walls. Sendler and several friends managed to obtain false papers that allowed them to enter the ghetto. They brought food and medicine into the ghetto and, as the Nazi's ultimate intentions became clear, started to smuggle young children out of the ghetto.

At the beginning they concentrated on bringing out young children who had been orphaned but they quickly expanded their operation to include children whose parents were still alive. Sendler walked door to door every day, trying to convince parents that their children had no chance of survival if they didn't leave the ghetto. Sendler later recounted those days, relating that, 60 years later, she still had nightmares when she remembered the scenes. "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 today."

Together with other Zagota members Sendler smuggled the children out through the sewers that ran under Warsaw, inside toolboxes, bags and luggage, under tram seats and even beneath garbage carts. Once on the other side of the wall, further work was needed. Catholic birth certificates and identity papers had to be forged and signed by high ranking Social Services officials and priests in order to enable the children to be taken from safe houses within Warsaw to convents and orphanages in the surrounding countryside.  Sendler carefully recorded all of the childrens' names and hiding places on tissue paper and hid them in jars that were buried in her neighbor's garden so that, eventually, the children could be reunited with family members or, if that proved impossible, with their Jewish community.

In 1943 the Gestapo arrested Sendler, almost catching her with a piece of paper that had a listing of a number of the children's names and hiding places. Sendler withstood Gestapo torture, though they broke both of her feet, and she was rescued as she was being walked to her execution by Zagota members who bribed a German guard.  Sendler was forced into hiding for the remainder of the war, though she continued to help Jews escape in any way that she could from her hiding place.

Irena Sendler's story was almost lost to history but a chance comment brought the incident to the attention of a group of high school students who were researching the Holocaust. The girls investigated the story and publicized it, even creating a performance called "Life in a Jar" that dramatized the events. Funding supplied by Lowell Milken, a Jewish reformer of education allowed them to dramatically increase their efforts. To date the performance has been viewed by thousands of people in audiences throughout the world. In 1999 the girls met the then 90--year-old Sendler and expanded their project which eventually grew to encompass, along with the performance, a book and a website.

In addition to the Life in a Jar project the Public Broadcasting System interviewed Sendler shortly before her hundredth birthday. The projects, interviews and public acknowledgement of Sendler's bravery and selflessness testify to the power of acts of lovingkindness on individuals and the entire society.

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1 comment:

Batya said...

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