The Lady and the Jars

31 Dec

Risking life to save lives

Irena: the Saviour
On 12 May 2008 a 98-year-old passed away after a severe bout of pneumonia in Warsaw, in Poland. It didn’t make headline news almost anywhere in the world. But many Polish families (and families in some parts of the world) knew that Irena was a heroine who deserved to be remembered and honoured as much as (or perhaps more than) war heroes or political heavy-weights.

Irena Sendlerowa (popularly known as Irena Sendler) has often been referred to as ‘the female Oskar Schindler’ in her native Poland for her daring and ingenuity in saving the lives of more than 2,500 people (most of them children) in German-occupied Poland during World War II. Unlike Oskar Schindler, whose story was the subject of the Academy Award-winning 1993 ‘Schindler’s List’, Irena was a relatively unknown figure to the world at large until 1999, when four Kansas (USA) high school students wrote and performed ‘Life in a Jar’, a play about Irena’s life-saving efforts in the Warsaw Ghetto. Irena along with her underground network rescued Jewish children and adults from the middle of the turmoil, confusion and cruelty of the War. Many of this number were already outside of the Ghetto created by the Germans and in hiding.

Irena’s background
Irena Sendler was born as Irena Krzyżanowska on 15 February 1910 in Warsaw to Dr.Stanisław Krzyżanowski, a physician, and his wife, Janina. Her father died in February 1917 from typhus contracted while treating patients whom his colleagues refused to treat for fear of contracting the disease, among them many Jews. After his death, Jewish community leaders offered her mother help in paying for Irena’s education. Irena studied Polish literature at Warsaw University. She opposed the ghetto-bench system that existed at some pre-war Polish universities and defaced her grade card. As a result of her public protest she was suspended from the University of Warsaw for three years. Irena was born in Warsaw in 1910, but she grew up in the town of Otwock, Poland. Irena’s name-day is October 20, while her birthday is February 15.

Irena’s great grandfather led a rebellion against the Czars. Irena’s father was a doctor and died in the typhus epidemic of 1917 when he contracted the disease while caring for poor Jewish people in Otwock. Irena was an only child, but she had a son and a daughter. Her daughter, Janka, still lives in Warsaw, Poland, and her son Adam passed away in 1999 (interestingly enough, the day the Life in a Jar project started on September 23rd). Adam’s daughter, (Irena’s granddaughter) Agniesa, is the same age as the girls who started the Life in a Jar project.

As early as 1939, when the Germans invaded Warsaw, Irena began helping Jews by offering them food and shelter. When the Warsaw Ghetto was erected in 1940, Irena could no longer help isolated Jews. The Ghetto was an area the size of New York’s Central Park and 450,000 Jewish people were forced into this area. Once the Warsaw Ghetto was formed, she started by saving the orphan children. Irena used her papers as a Polish social worker and papers from one of the workers of the Contagious Disease Department (who was a member of Zegota) to enter the Warsaw Ghetto. Irena and her helpers made over 3,000 false documents to help Jewish families before she joined Zegota and the children’s division. Irena was in charge of the Children’s Division of Zegota (a Polish underground group to assist Jewish people).

From Anna Krzyzewska, who is the daughter of Mrs. Maria Kukulska (Anna’s mother helped care for Irena’s children after they left the Ghetto, before they were placed) says,’ Irena was not only very active in saving Jewish children but also in the resistance against the Germans. She was frequently at our apartment.’ Irena used the old courthouse on the edge of the Warsaw Ghetto (still standing) as one of the main routes of smuggling children out.

Irena: and ‘Life in a Jar’
The students of the ‘Life in a Jar’ project gathered over 4,000 pages of primary material and research on the life of Irena Sendler and on the work of Zegota, the Polish underground organization. Irena’s story became known to the world through the Life in a Jar project. The author of the Polish book which features Irena’s life story says, ‘Everybody I talked to in working on this book, said that international and Polish interest in Irena’s activities was begun and provoked by the activities of the Kansas girls and by popularization in the American media.’ Irena was also the 2003 winner of the Jan Karski award for Valour and Courage, given to her on October 23, 2003 in Washington, D.C.

‘Life in a Jar’ started as a National History Day project in September of 1999. Four students (Megan Stewart, Liz Cambers, Sabrina Coons and Jessica Shelton) began looking for information about Irena Sendler. Mr. Conard had given them a clipping he had found in a 1994 issue of U.S. News and World Report. The mention of Irena was in a story called ‘Other Schindlers.’ Only one web site on the Internet mentioned Irena, it was not until the students visited Poland in 2001 that Irena’s story became known to the world. At the last count there were over 500,000 web sites on the Internet mentioning Irena.

When Irena first heard about the project in Kansas, she said, ‘I was stunned and fascinated; very, very surprised; interested.’ In one of Irena’s first letters to the girls, she wrote, ‘My emotion is being shadowed by the fact that no one from the circle of my faithful co-workers, who constantly risked their lives, could live long enough to enjoy all the honours that now are falling upon me…. I can’t find the words to thank you, my dear girls…. Before the day you wrote the play Life in a Jar — nobody in my own country and in the whole world cared about my person and my work during the war …’

Irena’s Cover methods
A Los Angeles Times obituary for Irena described how Irena, a Polish social worker, passed herself off as a nurse to sneak supplies and aid into (and children out of) the Warsaw Ghetto, and the punishment she endured when she was finally caught by the Nazis. Before her clandestine nurse operations Irena got into her ‘saving’ activities by working as a plumber and sewage cleaner –activities that often go unchallenged even in the most secretive societies.

Irena (code named Jolanta) and the ten who went with her into the ghetto, used several methods to smuggle children out. There were five main means of escape: 1 – using an ambulance a child could be taken out hidden under the stretcher. 2 – escaping through the courthouse. 3 – using the sewer pipes or other secret underground passages to take a child out. 4 – using a trolley to carry out children hiding in a sack, in a trunk, a suitcase or something similar. 5 – a child pretending to be sick or actually being very ill, could be a legal reason for removal using the ambulance. Irena did use a dog on occasion, but very few times out of the many rescues. Also, the number of babies saved was small in relation to the total number of children rescued.

There was a church next to the ghetto, but the entrance leading to it was ‘sealed’ by the Germans. If a child could speak good Polish and rattle off some Christian prayers it could be smuggled in through the ‘sealed’ entrance and later taken to the Aryan (German) side. This was very dangerous since Germans often used a rouse to trick the Poles and then arrest the escapees who were carrying Jolanta (Irena) documentation tags referring to the strips of paper she had buried in the jars, as well as the locations where the child was taken in the first phase of its escape. Irena and her network also made sure that each family hiding a child realized the child must be returned to Jewish relatives after the war.

Irena’s life of daring
She was a social worker in Warsaw when the German occupation of Poland began in 1939. In 1940, after the Nazis herded Jews into the ghetto and built a wall separating it from the rest of the city, disease, especially typhoid, ran rampant. Social workers were not allowed inside the ghetto, but Irena, imagining ‘the horror of life behind the walls,’ obtained fake identification and passed herself off as a nurse, allowed to bring in food, clothes and medicine.

By 1942, when the deadly intentions of the Nazis had become clear, Irena joined Zegota. She recruited 10 close friends –a group that would eventually grow to 25, all but one of them women—and began rescuing Jewish children. She and her friends smuggled the children out in boxes, suitcases, sacks and coffins, sedating babies to quieten the cries. Some were whisked away through a network of basements and secret passages. Operations were timed to the second. One of Irena’s children later told of waiting by a gate in darkness as a German soldier patrolled nearby. When the soldier passed, the boy counted to 30, then made a mad dash to the middle of the street, where a manhole opened and he was taken down into the sewers and eventually to safety.

Most of the children who left with Irena’s group were taken into Roman Catholic convents, orphanages and homes and given non-Jewish aliases. Irena recorded their true names on thin rolls of paper in the hope that she could reunite them with their families later. She preserved the precious scraps in jars and buried them in a friend’s garden.

Irena’s Capture and torture
Unfortunately in 1943 she was captured by the Nazis and tortured, but she refused to tell her captors who her co-conspirators were or where the bottles were buried. She also resisted in other ways. According to Meghan Felt (one of the authors of the project Life in a Jar), when Irena worked in the prison laundry, she and her co-workers made holes in the German soldiers’ underwear. When the officers discovered what they had one, they lined up all the women and shot every one. It was just one of the many close calls for Irena. During one particularly brutal torture session her captors broke her feet and legs, and she passed out. When she awoke, a Gestapo officer told her he had accepted a bribe from her comrades in the resistance to help her escape. The officer added her name to a list of executed prisoners. Irena went into hiding but continued her rescue efforts.

Felt also said that Irena had begun her rescue operation before she joined the organized resistance and helped a number of adults escape, including the man she later married. ‘We think she saved about 500 people before she joined Zegota,’ Felt said. This would mean that Irena ultimately helped rescue about 3,000 Polish Jews. When the war ended, Irena unearthed the jars and began trying to return the children to their families. For the vast majority there was no family left. Many of the children were adopted by Polish families; others were sent to Israel.

Irena: denied recognition?
The popular belief was that Irena Sendler was a candidate to receive the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, but that honour was not awarded to her. It is not exactly accurate to state categorically that she was ‘nominated’ for the award, since information for Nobel Prize nominations and opinions is kept secret for fifty years. In 2007, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded jointly to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and former US Vice-President Albert Arnold (Al) Gore Jr. ‘for their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change.’(Al Gore was also involved with another significant award in 2007, when ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, a documentary about his campaign to make the issue of global warming a recognized problem worldwide, claimed an Academy Award as ‘Best Documentary Feature’).

The International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW) expressed its disappointment that Irena Sendler had not yet been honoured with a Nobel Prize:
IFSW sends congratulations to Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on winning the Nobel Peace Prize 2007. The issue of climate change is affecting all individuals and societies and it is a more than worthy cause to help begin the change in our lifestyle to prevent destruction of our planet. Social workers know from daily experience that this is an immediate and pressing social and personal issue.

However IFSW remained deeply saddened that the life work of Irena Sendler, social worker, did not receive formal recognition’, said David N. Jones, IFSW President. ‘Irena Sendler and her helpers took personal risks day after day to prevent the destruction of individual lives — the lives of the children of the Warsaw ghetto. This work was done very quietly, without many words and at the risk of their lives. This is so typical of social work, an activity which changes and saves lives but is done out of the glare of publicity and often at personal risk. IFSW recognises her again and at the same time celebrates the commitment and dedication of thousands of social workers around the world who also bring hope and care to people often living on the edge of despair.’

[most facts from http://www.irenasendler.org : edited & adapted by T.D’Souza only for Trodza –31.12.14]

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