Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Story of Irena Sendler

Despite the fact that Irena Sendler was recognized in 1967 by the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum as one of the Righteous Among the Nations, her story was mostly unknown until 1999. That year, four students took on a special year-long project for National History Day and transformed Irena Sendler’s life story into a play. The project, Life in a Jar, took on a life of its own and the play has now been produced hundreds of times and been brought to life on film as well.

The story of Irena Sendler, who was born on this day in 1910, is rooted in the exalted concept of “concern-for-others,” taught to her by her physician father, who died when she was young but left a powerful impression  on her. Many years later, when she and her husband moved to Warsaw shortly before the war, Sendler took a position as a social service director. Through her job, she worked with many Jews and, even after the creation of the ghetto in Warsaw, she still had access to the community. Soon, she and her coworkers began forging documents for Jewish residents of the Ghetto.

As persecutions increased, so did Sendler’s efforts. One of the first members of Zegota (Council for Aid to Jews), she was assigned to head its children’s department. In this capacity, she helped smuggle 2,500 babies and small children to safety, placing them with Christian families or orphanages. Most significantly, even though she had to give the children new names and teach them Christian prayers, her long-range hope was to return the children  to their families, so she kept detailed records of their real names in jars that she buried.

Sendler was caught, imprisoned and tortured by the Nazis in 1943, but the guards were bribed to let her escape. She returned to Warsaw and continued rescuing children.

Following the war, Sendler was considered suspect in her loyalty by the Polish communist authorities. For this reason, she was unable to attend the ceremony honoring her at Yad Vashem or to receive any distinction until the communist government fell and her story slowly became known.  She has since received many honors and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007.

Irena Sendler passed away on May 12, 2008.

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