Chapel Hill High School
Holly Loranger’s Comparative Religions class
Irena Sendlerowa and the Power of the Past
“If you see someone drowning, you must jump in and try to save them, even if you don’t know how to swim.” Irena Sendlerowa’s father gave her this advice when she was just a little girl. He died of typhus in 1917 after working to help those infected in spite of the fatal risk. Irena spent her entire life following in her father’s footsteps to help the helpless. She became a social worker in Warsaw, Poland where she provided those in need with whatever she could offer them. Irena demonstrated incredible courage and determination to make the world a better place after the German invasion of Poland in 1939.
She was not a Jew. She could have stood silently as the Jewish population suffered. She could have watched these atrocities without a single word of protest or outrage. So many chose that path, the simple solution that would keep them free from illness or injury no matter what the cost. She could have joined the masses cheering as the Jews were paraded through the streets towards their inevitable deaths, but she didn’t. She understood that one must do good to be good. Even those who never touched a gun or spilled a drop of Jewish blood could not be considered truly good after passively watching their friends and neighbors meet terrible fates. Irena chose to act instead.
There had been 350,000 Jews in Warsaw before the war. After the Germans took over, they turned Warsaw into a ghetto, a piece of land reserved solely for Jews. Bricks and barbed wire isolated them from the rest of the world. The Jewish population was starving because of the miniscule amount of food given to them by the Germans. Many were forced into hard labor that was often nearly impossible for a healthy well-fed man. The ghetto was much too small to contain so many people. In addition to the discomfort of that situation, the Jews had to suffer with highly contagious diseases that were impossible to avoid. These conditions prompted Irena to provide much-needed aid in Warsaw. She was allowed to enter the ghetto to deal with the widespread illness. The German soldiers did not care that the Jews were sick, but they didn’t want to catch their diseases. Irena used these trips to smuggle in food, supplies, and medicine for the Jews. However, she quickly realized that although she was helping, the Jews were still dying. She was doing all she could for them, but it wasn’t enough to save them. Irena created another strategy to help the remaining Jews.
Since sustaining Jews in such dismal conditions proved to be a hopeless endeavor, Irena decided to help them escape. Starting with the orphans, she hid children, usually in her toolbox, to get them out of the ghetto. After their departure, she hid them in churches, orphanages, foster homes, and any safe place she could find. She then turned to the rest of the children. She had to convince parents to let her take their child away forever to keep them from dying. She then joined Zegota, a group determined to resist Jewish oppression during the war. They helped her continue to save children from Warsaw. Irena kept detailed records of every child she took away from concentration camps. She wanted to make sure that every single one of them would be able to regain their identity and find their remaining family members after the war. Irena’s determination to remember each child’s past shows incredible kindness and optimism.
In 1943, Irena was captured by the Gestapo. She was taken to jail, where she was brutally tortured. The Nazis tried to force her to give them information about Zegota and the Jewish children she had rescued. Even after they had broken her legs and feet, she refused to provide any information. In spite of her extreme conditions, her primary concern was the wellbeing of those children and of her fellow resistance workers. She demonstrated powerful dedication to ensuring equality for everyone, no matter their race, religion, ethnicity, or any other similar feature. Under Nazi Polish law, she was sentenced to death for helping the resistance and hindering German efforts to capture all Jews. Much like Irena had arranged escapes for so many children, Zegota arranged an escape for her. They bribed a guard to leave her unconscious by the road. She was rescued, but her injuries would take a long time to fully heal.
Most resistance members would have quit after such a traumatic experience, but Irena was stronger than most. She understood that her job was not done until the war was over, and that every life, every child about to die, was so tremendously important that she had to do whatever it took under any circumstances if it meant saving just one more child from an early grave. By the end of the war, she had rescued 2,500 children from concentration camps. She then turned over her carefully hidden documentation of these children in hopes that they could be reunited with the parents she had taken them from. Unfortunately, most of those parents had perished in the death camps, but a few lived long enough to thank the woman who saved their child’s life. Irena continued her job as a social worker and her story faded away, forgotten. It didn’t resurface until 1999, when a group of persistent Kansas students came across her name in an old news article and gave her story the fame it deserves.
Today, Irena’s story teaches the world how valuable it is to remember the past. She risked a slow and painful death every day she hid her list of names. She wanted to give each child the opportunity to remember who they were and where they came from so they could spread their story and their faith to prove that the Jews were not eradicated. If the holocaust isn’t remembered, then it’s forgotten, and humanity can’t let that happen. There is no expiration date on Irena’s story. Its hope, bravery, and determination can always inspire those who hear it. It can teach countless generations the fundamental belief that one should fight for human rights to extend to every human, because no one should be punished for their diversity. Innumerable masses can learn how to struggle and hope for a brighter future, no matter how dim the present may seem. All they have to do is listen to Irena’s story, and make sure it is never forgotten again.