May 12 – Celebration of Irena Sendler's Life

Posted on May 12, 2016

Where's the movie “Sendler's Lists”?

 According to Wikipedia, Irena Sendler saved more Jews from the Holocaust than any other individual, other than diplomats who were able to give out visas to help Jews escape from Nazi-occupied Europe.

What did this courageous nurse and social worker do? She served in the Polish Underground in German-occupied Poland, and she was the main planner of a small group that was responsible for smuggling about 2,500 infants and children out of the Warsaw Ghetto. These Underground workers provided false identity documents for those kids, along with shelter outside of the Ghetto, in Polish families or orphanages or Catholic convents. They almost certainly saved the kids from the Holocaust.

Sendler and her co-workers kept lists of the names of the hidden children, alongside their new identities. They put the lists into jars and buried them in their yards. The idea was that, after the war was over, they would try to find the children's families so that they could reunite them.

Check out the book Irena Sendler and the Children
of the Warsaw Ghetto
with illustrations by Bill Farnsworth.
In 1943, Sendler's activities were discovered by the Gestapo. The Gestapo broke her legs and arms, beat her severely, tortured her – all in an effort to uncover more of the Underground, or maybe to find the hidden Jewish children. Sendler withstood the beatings and torture and betrayed no one.

She was sentenced to death, but the Underground organization bribed some of the German guards, and she was able to escape during her transit to her execution.

You'd think, after such a narrow escape from death, Sendler would escape to Britain or at least lay low, but she went back to Warsaw under another name, and she continued her activity with the Underground. She worked as a nurse in a public hospital, and she hid five Jews. She continued until the war was over.

After the war, Sendler and her co-workers gathered all the jars with the children's names, and they turned the names over to an organization that tried to reunite families. Unfortunately, almost all of the kids' parents and families had been killed in concentration camps.

I think Sendler's Lists would be a great movie – very exciting, heartrending and heartwarming at the same time. But Irena Sendler's life and great achievement was kept pretty quiet for a long time...

Why wasn't she recognized as a major hero?

This photo shows Irena Sendler with some
of the people she saved when they were
Irena Sendler was loyal to the Home Army, the wartime Polish government in exile, and did not immediately join the communist party that took control of Poland post-WWII. Because of this, she was not allowed to be a recognized hero. Yad Vashem recognized her as one of the Polish Righteous among the Nations, and a tree was planted in her honor at the entrance to the Avenue of the Righteous. But she was not allowed to travel out to Israel to receive the honor.

When communist rule of Poland finally ended, in 1991, Sendler finally got some of the recognition that was her due. She was made an honorary citizen of Israel, she was given several awards, and students at a high school far away in Kansas produced a play based on her life story. Life in a Jar was staged, not just by that Kansas high school, but hundreds of times all over the U.S. and the world. The play was adapted for TV as The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler.

The Life in a Jar Foundation was formed to reward teachers who promote the attitude and message of Sendler. She was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times; she didn't win, but she received many other awards in her old age, and even after her death at age 98. Here are just a few:
  • Commander's Cross with Star
  • Order of the Smile
  • Order of the White Eagle
  • Audrey Hepburn Humanitarian Award

Sendler died on this date in 2008. Remember her life, celebrate her courage, and emulate her humanitarian attitude.

Also on this date:

Limerick Day

St. Andrea's Day in the nation of Georgia

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