Irena Sendler's legacy

"Every Jewish child saved with my assistance is a justification for my existence."

Irena Sendler 88 248 (photo credit: Iwona Hoffman)
Irena Sendler 88 248
(photo credit: Iwona Hoffman)
As a young Roman Catholic student at Warsaw University in the 1930s, Irena Sendler stood out, one of the few of her faith who regularly sat with the Jewish students in the segregated lecture halls. She was taunted by the Christian students for showing solidarity with her Jewish classmates. A strong sense of social justice had been instilled in her as a child by her doctor father, who died of typhus after treating patients his colleagues had shunned because they were poor Jews. Those who knew her then would not have been surprised when a few years later, as a social worker for the city, she braved death and survived torture to help smuggle 2,500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto. "Every Jewish child saved with my assistance is a justification for my existence in this world, not a reason for glorification," Sendler told an interviewer. Irena Sendler died on May 12 at 98. Among the many mourners at Warsaw's historic Powazski Cemetery was Elzbieta Ficowska, 66, one of the children Sendler rescued from the ghetto in 1942. Ficowska was taken out of the ghetto in a carpenter's wooden box, hidden on a truck beneath a pile of bricks arranged to allow air to reach her. She had been sedated to prevent her from crying. With her in the box was a silver spoon, engraved with her name and date of birth, presumably put there by the mother she had never known. "It was a truly heroic act for my mother to give away her six-month-old baby with no guarantee it would survive," Ficowska said sadly in an interview. "That was the painful decision my mother made." Sendler and her team of 30 women volunteers had to persuade Jewish mothers that getting their children out of the ghetto was the only way to save them. Sendler told her biographer that the real heroes were the mothers who "gave those most dear to their hearts to unknown strangers," saying that in her dreams she "could still hear them cry when they left their parents." Baby Fiscowska was brought to Stanislaw Bussoldowa, a Roman Catholic midwife, who delivered the babies of Jewish women in hiding. Bussoldowa was a member of Sendler's clandestine network. She adopted Elzbieta and raised her as a Catholic. Ficowska told a group of Holocaust survivors in 1992 that her Jewish mother had called Bussoldowa several times and asked that the telephone receiver be placed next to her baby so she could possibly hear her babbling. "She probably longed for me and wanted assurance that I still existed," said Ficowska. "What a shame that I could not understand. I was told the last call came in October 1942." Both Ficowska's parents perished in the Holocaust. She has made many futile attempts to find pictures of them. Sendler was in charge of the children's bureau of Zegota, an underground organization set up to save Jews after the German invasion of Poland. Warsaw's 450,000 Jews, 30 percent of the city's population, were herded into a tiny section of the municipality in November 1940 and surrounded by two-meter-high walls. Disease and starvation were rampant. Bodies were strewn on the street each day, covered by newspapers. The Germans feared deteriorating health conditions in the ghetto could lead to a typhus outbreak which could also kill them. They therefore gave Sendler legal entry into the tightly-guarded ghetto to deliver medicines and report any serious illness. She was accompanied by a team of 30 women, armed with forged documents. Sendler's rescue operation saved more Jews than did the better-known Oskar Schindler. Some children were taken out of the ghetto on trolleys supposedly returning empty to depots. Some were taken through the municipal courts abutting the ghetto. Older children were escorted out of the ghetto though the city sewers. At one time, the ghetto boundaries reached the Jewish cemetery. Some children were placed in coffins, their mouths taped so they would not cry as they were smuggled out. "She knew the kids would be killed," said Michael Schudrich, Poland's chief rabbi. According to Schudrich, Sendler was determined to make a difference. "It was pure guts," he said. Outside support was essential to the smuggling operation. It required people to drive vehicles, priests to issue false baptism certificates, bureaucrats to issue identity cards and families or religious orders to care for the Jewish children. The penalty for Poles helping Jews was instant execution. Despite the enormous risk, more than 6,000 Poles have been named Righteous Among the Nations and honored at Yad Vashem. Organizing these escapes was an awesome challenge. "She was a genius at planning all of these escapes," recalled Michael Glowinski, speaking of Sendler in his tiny, book-lined apartment. "She saved my mother's life and my life and she risked everything to save Jews." Glowinski is a professor of literature at the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw and is the author of Black Seasons, a compelling memoir of his childhood during the war. It is a delicate blend of two voices - that of a young child and that of his adult self. Sendler's network shepherded the eight-year-old boy on a tortuous path leading to an orphanage in eastern Poland run by impoverished nuns. The wounds of his shattered youth still pain the avuncular 74-year-old. "If one spends his life in the ghetto and still hiding, locked in a closet, or in a stack of potatoes, his whole life is marked by that experience. It is the dominant element of my life that puts everything else in perspective. The childhood trauma is the most important element of my biography." POLISH DEPUTY Prime Minister Wladyslaw Bartoszewski recalled Sendler during an interview in a stately conference room in the Prime Minister's Office. Bartoszewski, a lanky 86-year-old man with enormous energy, was the creator of Zegota, the underground organization that Sendler headed. Bartoszewski spoke in rapid-fire bursts, often gesticulating to emphasize points. "Sendler saved the Jewish children and I forged the documents to give them new identities as Christians. We were both scared, but we knew we were doing the right thing. She was a little woman who always wore her hair in a braid. Her code name was 'Jolanta.' Mine was 'Ludwig.' We didn't say much to each other. It was better that we didn't know too much about fellow members of the underground, so we couldn't say much if we were arrested and tortured." Sendler wrote the names of the children on tissue paper to help trace them later. The names were placed in jars and buried under an apple tree in the backyard of the late Jaga Piotrowska on Lesarka Street 9. Piotrowska's daughter, Hanna Rechowicz, 76, pointed out the apple tree, jutting skyward through the thick bushes that had been growing wild for years and were desperately in need of pruning. She was 10 years old in 1942 and recalled that Jewish children stayed at their home briefly before being sent to more permanent residences. Rechowicz, a frail woman with failing eyesight, remembered playing with the children. "I always knew a new one was coming when my mother got a call from Sendler saying, 'You'll be getting a package today.'" Rechowicz said that one of the children "stayed for two years, and we loved playing together." She showed me a hidden basement apartment where the Jewish children lived. A concealed door led to the backyard garden, giving the children an escape route through the thick brush should the house be raided. It was hard to believe that terrified children, given a reprieve from death, hid in this house with the lush backyard. Sendler was arrested by the Gestapo in 1943 and interrogated at the notorious Pawiak prison where the cries of the tortured rang through the dank corridors. A German officer, speaking fluent Polish, charged the diminutive prisoner with being a member of the underground and demanded she give the names of her confederates or face torture. (The Germans did not know that Sendler was smuggling Jewish children out of the ghetto.) Sendler was brutally tortured but revealed nothing. She was sentenced to death, but then received assurances from the underground that she would not die. She was taken out of the prison to be executed, but was instead freed by the guards who had been bribed. Sendler was taken to a safe house where she hid for the rest of the war, but continued working for the underground. Sendler recovered the jars after the war and traced the children. Most of their parents perished in Treblinka. Jewish relief agencies had cared for the children, placing many of them with relatives who had survived the Holocaust, or in displaced persons camps. During 44 years of communist rule, Sendler and other members of the wartime underground were reviled as capitalist stooges because they had taken their orders from the pro-Western government-in-exile in London. In 1965, Sendler became one of the first Righteous Gentiles honored at Yad Vashem. The communist government barred her from visiting Israel to accept the award. She was not granted permission to go to Israel until 1983. Her story finally began to emerge with the collapse of communism in 1989. "You have to remember that Irena Sendler was a non-person during the years of communist rule and was never mentioned in the government-controlled media and now her story is being told more and more each year," explained Robert Zuchta, the first recipient of the annual Irena Sendler award for teachers, which he received for writing the Holocaust curriculum for Poland's schools. "She is being held up in the schools as the heroine that she was." Now, the democratic government of Poland extols Sendler as a national hero and nominated her for the Nobel Peace prize this year and last. The children at Gymnajum 23 voted to rename their school after Sendler the day she died. Veronica Piotrowska, 12, shares Sendler's passionate opposition to anti-Semitism which has scarred Poland for many years. Veronica said she had visited Sendler many times and was moved by her unwavering commitment to justice. This belated recognition of Sendler's heroism demonstrates Poland's reexamination of its history during World War II and the post-war communist period. "Poland is engaged in a process of deep, difficult and honest soul-searching," observed Rabbi Schudrich, who visited Sendler regularly at the convent where she spent her last years. "We have been blessed for so many years to have her as an example," he said at her funeral. He recalled a visit with Sendler a few weeks before her death. "She was in the act of dying. She was having difficulty breathing. But she asked me 'How's your daughter, Rabbi?'" Schudrich's daughter is a student at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. Even on her deathbed, Irena Sendler was thinking of others.