Day 322: The Angel Of Warsaw

originally published November 17, 2012

This site’s reputation has been built on a reputation of hard-cutting satire, edgy intellectual comedy, and a complete lack of awareness about what this site’s reputation has been built upon. But sometimes we have to check our laughs at the door and have the cajones to stand up and start a slow-clap, fully aware that it will crescendo into tumultuous applause because the object of our smacky praise is someone more awesome than we will ever aspire to become.

Today, that someone is Irena Sendler.

Born near the start of the last century in Poland, Irena lost her father when she was only seven. He was a doctor, and died of typhus, which he contracted by treating patients whom other doctors staunchly refused to go near. Many of those patients were Jews, and for this the Jewish community paid back his sacrifice by offering to foot the bill for Irena’s education. Maybe they just felt that someone with a heart three times the size of Prussia deserves to see his bloodline thrive.

She entered Warsaw University and promptly got herself booted out. It turns out that Hitler didn’t actually invent anti-Semitism in Europe; a sizable portion of the Polish population was already on board the Jew-hating train. As such, they implemented a policy in the mid-30s at Warsaw University wherein all Jewish students were forced to sit on specific benches off to the side of every classroom, or face expulsion.

Given that Universities are often cauldrons of liberal thinking, there was tremendous opposition to this policy, though not enough opposition to actually shut it down. It didn’t help that penalties were levied for any objections, such as Irena Sendler’s three-year suspension from the school for speaking up. She learned a lot about human behavior from the Polish ghetto-bench system.

Eventually fully trained and ready to serve, Irena settled in Warsaw. Once WWII had begun coughing up its monstrosities all over Europe’s political carpet, Irena wasted no time in getting involved. She and her colleagues began drafting false documents to help Jewish families either fool the Nazi goose-steppers or to help them get the hell out of Dodge. In total, she was responsible for over 3000 fake IDs, enough to get almost every high school student in the greater Cleveland area into the nightclub of their choice.

Irena joined up with Zegota, the Council to Aid Jews, working with their children’s division under the codename Jolanta. Officially, she was an employee of the Social Welfare Department, which was how she obtained a permit to enter the Warsaw Ghetto.

This is what makes Irena Sendler an undeniably superlative human being. The percentage of people who were willing to help out the Jews during the holocaust – particularly in those early days before the Nazis’ extermination tactics were widely known – is tragically small. But the people who were willing to walk into the Ghetto and get their hands dirty… well, you could list them pretty quick, and you’d best start with Irena Sendler.

Irena wore a Star of David armband while in the Ghetto out of solidarity. She wanted to blend in, to do what she needed to do without attracting a lot of attention. She had been sent in because the Nazis were worried that a typhus outbreak might spread past the ghetto walls and affect them. Irena knew she’d never be able to sneak a bunch of families out past the guards, but she could do something.

On her regular inspections, Irena would show up in an ambulance stocked with food, medicine and clothing. On her way back out, she’d always try to take a few kids with her. Children were small enough to be easily smugglable, and though the families inside the Ghetto hated the thought of sending their children off with a stranger, it became clear that this was much safer for the kids than the alternative.

Because of her promotion to the head of the Zegota’s Children’s Department, Irena had a small fleet of assistants who were willing to help out. At this time, Poland’s punishments for aiding and abetting Jewish existence was more strict than anywhere in Europe, even more so than in Germany. Hiding a Jewish family meant execution. But Irena and her team found a way.

Children were hauled to freedom in potato sacks. Sometimes she stashed them in crates of goods. In a grim slice of irony, she often carted the children away from the certain death the Ghetto offered inside body bags or coffins. A mechanic in Irena’s employ even tucked a small kid into the bottom of his toolbox. She was crafty and creative, and risking her neck with every life she brought to freedom.

On the other side of the wall, Irena usually handed the children over to the church. I know, the Catholics took a hard smack to their image for the Pope’s refusal to condemn the actions of Hitler and his band of thugs. But a number of convents, churches, and the Warsaw orphanage of the Sisters of the Family of Mary all helped to place these children in Polish homes, with doctored papers to render them official non-Jews until the time came when they could return to who they were.

Irena kept track of each child, writing down their names beside their new identities so that the kids could be returned to their families after the Nazis were defeated. She stashed these lists inside jars and buried them under an apple tree in her neighbor’s back yard, right across the street from German barracks.

In 1943, Irena was arrested by the Gestapo. They’d figured out what she was up to. They tortured her, broke her legs, broke her feet, and tossed into Pawiak Prison to face execution. It would have been the end of Irena, except Zegota arranged for some top-notch guard bribery. Irena escaped and went into hiding.

She continued to help out the cause, albeit in a much less visible way now that the Nazis were after her. The war ended, and Irena and her colleagues dug up the jars and set about restoring these children to their families. Unfortunately, almost every parent who tearfully sent their children away with Irena had been killed at the Treblinka extermination camp, or had otherwise been disposed of by the Nazis. But the children survived. In total, about 2500 of them.

Yes, 2500. Oskar Schindler, amazing as he was, only saved about 1100 Jews. He got a Spielberg epic and Irena got a TV movie. Not that she was after praise, nor was she denied it – she has been given the highest possible honors by the Polish and Israeli governments, and was made an honorary Israeli citizen. She was even up for the Nobel Peace Prize, but that was the year Al Gore had his little slideshow, so she came up short.

Irena Sendler may not be a household name, but by all rights she should be. Thousands of descendants of those children are alive today because of her, though much like Schindler, her biggest regret was that she couldn’t have saved more. She passed away peacefully in Warsaw in 2008, at 98 years old.

If that doesn’t give you a little faith in humankind for your weekend, nothing will.

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