The Talmud says that "He who saves one life… it as if he saves an entire universe…" Sanhedrin 4:5.
Oskar Schindler’s name became a household word in 1982 with the award-winning book Schindler’s Ark. The story was even more widely publicized in 1993 when the movie Schindler’s List was released. Schindler’s story was an incredible tale of bravery, initiative and pursuit of righteousness and stories of resistance in the face of Nazi might and stories such as his remind us of how many worlds were saved by the actions of the Righteous Among the Nations.
One such story was almost relegated to the archives of history. It was only due to the diligence and persistence of a group of non-Jewish Kansas schoolgirls that the courage and dedication of a Polish woman who sacrificed her own freedom to save Jewish lives is recognized.
Irena Sendler was a young Polish social worker when the Germans invaded Poland in 1939. One of the Germans’ first acts was to isolate the Jews of Poland. Murder and persecution began almost immediately and many Jews were sent away to labour camps or interned in ghettos. Sendler was an early member of the Zagota Polish underground which was dedicated to helping the Jews obtain false papers that identified them as Polish Christians and allowed them to integrate into Polish cities. It is estimated that, in her capacity as a Zagota member, Sendler assisted over 500 Jews in this manner.
The Warsaw Ghetto was established in November of 1940 and over 400,000 Jews were interned in its 3.4 square mile area. From the beginning the situation was catastrophic within the ghetto. There was little food available and the Germans rounded up Jews daily to send them to the Treblinka death camp.
Sendler obtained papers that identified her as a nurse who specialized in infectious diseases. She was then able to enter the ghetto with food and medicines and she began to smuggle street orphans out every time she left the ghetto. Sendler rightly recognized that the Nazis intended to murder all of the ghetto Jews and within a short period of time she started to approach families within the ghetto to try to convince them to allow her to take their children to the "safe" side of Warsaw.
"I talked the mothers out of their children" Sendler said when she was interviewed over half a century after the events. "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."
Sendler and her Zagota comrades had a variety of smuggling options that they employed including sedating young children and smuggling them out under Sendler’s tram seat or in pieces of luggage or in toolboxes. Sometimes they hid the children under garbage or put barking dogs on top of the children to distract the German guards.
Once a child arrived on the other side of the ghetto wall Sendler and her friends procured false documents for the child and located hiding places — with sympathetic families, in convents and in orphanages. The children had to learn Catholic liturgy and internalize their new identities, though Sendler recorded their true names on pieces of tissue paper which she hid in glass jars in her yard, hoping to reunite them with the Jewish community at the end of the war.
Sendler and her comrades successfully brought out over 2500 Jewish children and hid them for the duration of the war. In October 1943 Sendler was arrested and taken to the infamous Pawiak prison where she was interrogated. Sendler withstood the torture and didn’t reveal any information about the children or about her Zagota comrades. As she was being led to her execution a German guard, who had been bribed, allowed her to escape and she spent the rest of the war years in hiding.
Sendler was honoured for her activities in 1965 by Yad Vashem as a Righteous Gentile but her story was forgotten until 1999 when a group of students from the Lowell Milken Center, acting on a few snippets of information, tracked her down. Sendler was well into her 90s when the girls began their project. The project, Life in a Jar, eventually expanded into a book, a website and a performance which has been viewed by thousands of people throughout the world.