A Holocaust heroine who saved 2,500 kids: ‘I did so little’

Photo by Jake via Flickr. Available through Creative Commons license.

Photo by Jake via Flickr. Available through Creative Commons license.

For the steps she took in the face of Nazi hate and power, she’s been called the “female Schindler.”

Most likely you’ve never heard of her, but this weekend you’ll have a remarkable opportunity to learn more.

As a young woman, Irena Sendler took real risks to help and save Jews after the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939. First, working for a social welfare agency in Warsaw, Poland, Sendler helped feed Jews and provide false documents.

After Jews were forced into the Warsaw ghetto in 1940, the task became more urgent and the danger for them and her grew. Germans told the Poles that not only would anyone who helped Jews be killed, but also their families could be driven from their homes, imprisoned, tortured and killed.

But this did not stop Sendler, who went on to join an underground group. Known by the resistance forces as Jolanta, Irena, still employed as a social welfare worker, was able to go to the Ghetto to check for typhus.

In 1942, the Nazis began to remove 7,000 Jews a day from the Warsaw Ghetto, taking them to Treblinka to be murdered. In 1943, Jews rose up against Nazis but this valiant revolt was ultimately crushed and any left in the Ghetto were sent to their death.

By herself and by organizing others before the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto met this terrible fate, Sendler saved 2,500 children.

With her pass from Warsaw’s Contagious Diseases Department, Sendler could enter the Ghetto to carry out sanitary inspections. Often wearing a star of David in a sign of solidarity with the Jews, Sendler smuggled out children and toddlers, secreting them in coffins, suitcases and packages, or putting them under someone being transported in an ambulance.

As reporter Richard Pendlebury wrote of the two dozen conspirators who worked with Sendler, “Some were tasked to get the children out, others to find homes for them outside the ghetto and a third group to obtain or forge hundreds of false documents for the young escapees.”

Sendler was eventually caught, and she was jailed and tortured. Only by the oddest of circumstances did she escape the firing squad she was sentenced to face.

Because Sendler wanted to reunite these children with their families after the war but knew that keeping information about them was dangerous, she put their names in jars and buried them.

Because most parents were killed by the Nazis, just a few could find their families. But it was Sendler’s work that saved these children. Whatever they did with their lives, whatever children and grandchildren they had, it was because Sendler had stepped forward.

Before dying at age 98 in 2008, Sendler said, “I was brought up to believe that a person must be rescued when drowning, regardless of religion and nationality. The term ‘heroine’ irritates me greatly. The opposite is true. I continue to have pangs of conscience that I did so little.”

Other rescuers have said similar things. According to research by Kristen Renwick Monroe, they don’t see themselves as special. What separates rescuers from others is seeing those threatened as human beings and, often, growing up seeing family members who acted altruistically, whether from religious or secular values.

During World War II, Americans helped stop Hitler and liberated concentration camps. Today, as refugee crises swell overseas and immigrants come to the United States, we face new challenges.

Nationally and in the state, we’ve seen anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiments to stir anger and try to win elections.

Racist posters were put up in opposition to Lewiston mayoral candidate Ben Chin. Then Chin gave an extraordinary speech about his Chinese immigrant grandfather and the Maine his new baby would live in.

Clearly today’s developments are not the same as what Sendler faced. However, they remind us that each generation is challenged to stand up against those who would divide us and those who hate others for who they are. Maine can learn from the past and do better.

On Sunday, Nov. 8, you can see the free play, “Life in a Jar — The Story of Irena Sendler” at Hampden Academy Performing Arts Center, at 89 Western Ave. at 1 or 5 p.m. May Sendler’s memory be a blessing and inspiration.

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.