Israel's Remembrance Authority was established along with the Yad VaShem World Center for Holocaust Research, Documentation, Education and Commemoration in 1953. The two bodies work side by side to ensure a proper memorial for the victims of the Holocaust.
As part of that mission a program of honoring the Chasidey Umos Haolam -- the Righteous Among the Nations -- was launched. As Yad VaShem and the Remembrance Authority struggled with the scope of their mandate they examined the impact of the total abandonment and betrayal of Europe’s Jews by the gentile world. At the same time these institutions instigated programs that would honor the individuals who put their lives and the lives of their families at risk to rescue Jews.
To date Yad Vashem has honored over 20,000 Righteous Gentiles. One of these women was Irena Sendler, a simple Polish social worker who saved over 3000 Jews -- in the words of the Jewish sages, 3000 individual worlds. Yet following the 1965 ceremony at which she was honored Sendler's story was almost relegated to the ash heap of history. It was only in 1999, when by chance, a group of non-Jewish Kansas schoolgirls began to research the events, that the story was given the publicity that it deserved. The girls' school research developed into a world-renowned historical project that today includes a book, a website and a staged performance.
Irena Sendler was living in Warsaw in 1939 when the Germans invaded Poland. She was one of the first members of the Zagota -- an underground group which specialized in assisting Jews. Throughout the first two years of the war Sendler and her Zagota comrades forged documents and found hiding places for over 500 Jews who were fleeing the Nazis.
In 1941 Sendler secured false documents which identified her as a nurse. She was then able to enter the Warsaw Ghetto to bring in food and medicines. Once she saw the situation in the ghetto for herself Sendler realized that the Nazis intended to murder the entire ghetto population. She felt that the best chance to save lives lay in removing children from the ghetto so she instigated a system of picking up orphans from the street and spiriting them out of the ghetto. She sedated many of the children and hid them under her tram seat or found workmen who would carry the unconscious children out in toolboxes and bags. Some children were even placed under garbage or barking dogs and smuggled out in these carts while others were led through the sewer system below the city to freedom.
Sendler also began to approach families in the ghetto. She begged the parents to allow her to take their children out of the ghetto. This was traumatic for the parents, who had to decide where their children's best chance of survival lay. It was also traumatic for Sendler herself who described the scenes 50 years later. "I talked the mothers out of their children" Sendler remembered as she described the heartwrenching scenes that she endured, day after day, as she took the children away from their families. "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."
As perilous as smuggling the children out of the ghetto was, the second part of the rescue operation was just as difficult. Zagota members had to forge documents for the children and find hiding places for them. Many children were placed in convents or orphanages while others hid with supportive Polish families. Sendler recorded the names of all of the children on tissue paper which she placed in glass jars and buried in her neighbor's garden. She wanted to see the children reunited with their families after the war or, if that proved to be impossible, with their Jewish community.
In October 1943 Sendler was arrested by the Gestapo and taken to the Pawiak prison where she was tortured. Sendler withstood the torture and refused to reveal the names of her Zagota comrades or the childrens' hiding places. Zagota members secured her release by bribing a guard and Sendler lived out the rest of the war in hiding.I always appreciate learning stories like this, of non Jews who swam against very strong currents to extend a hand of compassion towards our brethren during the inferno. One of my personal heroes has been Raoul Wallenberg, for quite some time.
I had only been peripherally aware of Ms Sender, coming into contact with her through my readings on the Warsaw Ghetto and the efforts of other individuals like Dr Janus Korczak Hyd.