Second to Al Gore in the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize voting. For the last two years, on the announcement of the Prize, I think of Irena.
Read her heart-wrenching story. Tweet it. Retell it. Pass it along to others. It adds perspective to today’s “historic” announcement. Plus, it’s such a great story.
Irena Sendler passed away in May 2008. Her heroic story in a nutshell:
Irena Sendler is 97 years old. She has seen this image in her dreams countless times over the years, heard the children’s cries as they were pulled from their mothers’ grasp; each time it is another mother screaming behind her. To the children, she seemed a merciless captor; in truth, she was the agent to save their lives.
Mrs. Sendler, code name “Jolanta,” smuggled 2,500 children out of the Warsaw Ghetto during the last three months before its liquidation. She found a home for each child. Each was given a new name and a new identity as a Christian. Others were saving Jewish children, too, but many of those children were saved only in body; tragically, they disappeared from the Jewish people. Irena did all she could to ensure that “her children” would have a future as part of their own people.
She listed the names of every rescued child and buried the lists in a jar, hoping that the children could be reunited with their families after the war.
Mrs. Sendler listed the name and new identity of every rescued child on thin cigarette papers or tissue paper. She hid the list in glass jars and buried them under an apple tree in her friend’s backyard. Her hope was to reunite the children with their families after the war. Indeed, though most of their parents perished in the Warsaw Ghetto or in Treblinka, those children who had surviving relatives were returned to them after the war.
Yet Irena Sendler sees herself as anything but a heroine. “I only did what was normal. I could have done more,” she says. “This regret will follow me to my death.”
And then there’s this. . .
For two years, Jolanta’s covert operations were successful. Then, in October 20, 1943, the Gestapo caught up with her. She was arrested, imprisoned in Warsaw’s notorious Pawiak prison, and tortured. Her feet and legs were broken. She still needs crutches and a wheelchair as a result of those injuries, and still carries the scars of those beatings. She refused to betray any of her co-conspirators or to reveal the whereabouts of any of the children.
Jolanta was sentenced to death by firing squad, a sentence that she accepted with pride. But unbeknown to her, Zegota had bribed one of the German guards, who helped her to escape at the last moment. He recorded her name on the list of those who had been executed. On the following day, the Germans loudly proclaimed the news of her death. She saw posters all over the city reporting it. The Gestapo eventually found out what had happened; they sent the guard to fight on the Russian front, a sentence they felt was worse than death. Irena spent the rest of the war in hiding much like the children she had saved. Relentlessly pursued by the Gestapo, she continued her rescue efforts in any way she could, but by then the Warsaw Ghetto had been liquidated.
Due to the Communist regime’s suppression of history and its anti-Semitism, few Poles were aware of Zegota’s work, despite the unveiling of a plaque honoring the organization, in 1995, near the former Warsaw Ghetto. Mrs. Sendler continued her life, simply and quietly, continuing to work as a social worker … until the discovery by the Kansas teenagers catapulted her into the public arena.