The Children of Ms Sendler
16 February 2003
The society Children of the Holocaust
announced an initiative to award Irena Sendlerowa a
Two Nobel Prize candidates (Czeslaw Milosz and Wislawa
Szmborska) already supported this initiative. The support
of the laureates of the peace Nobel Prize (Lech Walesa
and Jimmy Carter) is also awaited. Today Ms. Sendler,
who lives in Poland, has been almost entirely forgotten,
although during the war she managed to save 2,500 Jewish
children and has been honored with the medal "Righteous
among the Nations of the World".
Irena Sendler's grandfather took part in the January
Uprising; her father Stanislaw Krzyzanowski was an activist
of the Polish Socialist Party (PPS). Irena studied Polish
literature and in 1931 she married her university colleague
Mieczyslaw Sendler. She was an activist of the leftist
Zwiazek Mlodziezy Demokratycznej (The Union of Democratic
Youth); she participated in protests against a "desk
ghetto" in lecture halls) and she also joined the
PPS. During the war she helped Jews.
In 1942 the liquidation of the
Warsaw ghetto had started - people crowded in a small
area were transported to Treblinka. Another form of
mass extermination was hunger. In September 1942 the
writer Zofia Kossak-Szczucka became the head of the
provisional Committee to Aid Jews, which used the Konrad
Zegota Committee codename. In December 1942 the committee
was transformed into the Rada Pomocy Zydom (The Council
to Aid Jews) and was financed by the local representatives
of the Polish Government in Exile. Irena Sendler became
the head of the children's department of Zegota. Irena
Sendler and 10 of her message carriers entered the ghetto
dressed up as nurses. The Germans, fearing that the
typhus epidemic might spread outside the walls of the
ghetto, allowed Polish medical institutions to operate
within the ghetto. Sendler's group was primarily concerned
with finding ways to smuggle out children. Four routes
turned out to be best: The first was the ambulance;
children were given sleeping pills, put into sacks and
taken away from the ghetto as "victims of typhus".
The second route made use of the building of the Leszno
court, which was right next to wall of the ghetto. The
janitors opened the door on the ghetto side and lead
the children to the Aryan side. However the szmalcowniks
(blackmailers) soon learned about this route and frequently
waited for their victims there. Children were smuggled
out of the ghetto through cellars of houses on both
sides of the ghetto wall connected by secret corridors.
The forth method involved the tram depot on the Jewish
side. The husband of one of the messengers was a motorman.
At 6 am he placed under one of the seats a carton with
a child (that was given sleeping pills) and took the
child to the Aryan side. Children were also smuggled
out through the main gate of the ghetto - in sacks and
in garbage cans.
It was easier to escape from
the ghetto than to survive on the Aryan side. The saving
of one child required the help of at least ten people.
Children were first transported to secret units of caring
service (pogotowie opiekuncze) and later to a safe place.
When it was necessary to escape from an endangered location
Irena Sendler led the children to a new address. Many
children were taken care of by nuns. Mary's Family sisters
saved almost five hundred of them - all of "their"
children survived, and the nuns also managed to avoid
repressions. The sisters of the Szarytki Convent were
less lucky: in 1944 at the Powazki cemetery Germans
spilled gasoline and then burned alive eight nuns for
hiding Jewish children.
The Gestapo found out about Irena
Sendler at the end of 1943 and she was taken to the
Pawiak prison. The Germans wanted her to give away the
children: their fake names and addresses. Ms. Sendler
refuses to talk about the beating, but she mentioned
a thick file she had been shown consisting of denunciations
and anonyms sent to Gestapo - from strangers and people
she knew. After three months at the Pawiak prison she
was taken, along with a group of prisoners, to aleja
Szucha. When she awaited the execution a German soldier
arrived and took her to an "additional interrogation".
They went outside and the German shouted in Polish:
"run!" The next day she found her name on
the list of the executed Poles. Irena Sendler was unable
to find out how high was "the fee" and how
many Germans had to be bribed. Irena Sendler returned
to work under a false identity. After the war she worked
for social welfare; she helped create old people's homes,
orphanages and an emergency service for children. She
was persecuted by the secret police. In 1965 she was
awarded the title Righteous among the nations of the
world; however she was allowed to travel to Israel to
plant her tree in Yad Vashem only in 1983.
Aleksandra Zawłocka, Dzieci Sendlerowej (The Children
of Ms. Sendler),
Wprost 7(1055), February 16, 2003, p. 60-63.