I had never heard of Irena Sendler, but once I read her story, I couldn’t not remember her. I have always wanted to share her story on my blog and found it fitting to share it on Anzac Day.
The Woman Who Used a Sewer to Rescue Jewish Children
Irena’s known for the work she did in helping Jews when the Germans invaded Warsaw. Prior to World War II, Irena helped the Jews by offering them shelter and food, but in 1940, the Warsaw Ghetto was erected and Irena could no longer help the Jews that were held there in isolation. 450,000 Jewish people were forced into the Ghetto.
Not a woman to be deterred by the Germans, Irena began rescuing Jewish children from the Ghetto. Sometimes she’d encourage parents and grandparents to allow her to take their children so they wouldn’t die in the Ghetto or sent to execution camps. She was a member of the Zegota, a Polish Council whose business was to aide Jews.
She had different ways of smuggling the children out of the Ghetto. Irena was able to use her trade as a social worker and false papers that said she was a plumbing/sewer specialist to gain access to the Warsaw Ghetto. Once inside she would smuggle children in a burlap sack in the back of her truck and for infants, she would hide them in the bottom of her tool box. Sometimes the children were smuggled through the sewers. Irena had a dog that she trained to bark at the Nazi soldiers to conceal the cries of the children who were being smuggled in her truck (although after reading Life in a Jar, the dog was only used on small occasions and not many babies were smuggled during that time.) Irena smuggled 2500 Jewish children out of the Ghetto.
Each smuggled Jewish child was sent to a family within Irena’s network or sent to orphanages, and hidden until the war was over. Irena made notes of each child on tissue paper and would put them in a jar and bury it in her backyard to ensure each child would be accounted for and returned to their biological family once the war had ended.
On October 20, 1943, Irena was arrested and placed into Piawiak prision where she was questioned and tortured. Her legs and feet were broken during the questioning time. She was to be executed by gun shot, however the Zegota council bribed the German executioner who helped her escape. News that she had been shot was posted all over the city even though she had escaped.
Irena went into hiding until the war was over. She was the only one who knew where all of the children she had smuggled could be found. After the war was over, she was able to dig up the jars and begin the hard job of returning each child to a living parent. Sadly, nearly all the parents had died at Treblinka death camp.
Irena’s story is an important one, of a life lived by putting her safety on the line to help others. Her story didn’t become well known until 1999 when three students from Kansas rediscovered her story and have made a production called Life in a Jar, that is played in schools to teach everyone about Irena’s amazing life. It has since been written into a book and film.
Despite Irena being a Roman Catholic, she did what she could to ensure the Jews weren’t obliterated from existence.
When I think about Irena’s life and mission, I think what a wonderful example of grace and mercy. Here character is one we should all replicate. If we put aside our own agenda’s and see people as valuable and worthy to be helped, not letting ethnicity or religion stand in the way.
I also believe that same spirit of wanting to help was found in the men who signed up to war. In the ANZACS that said yes to protect and defend, not really knowing what they were in for.
On Anzac Day we commemorate a different war. Lives of those who were taken too soon, who went to war and were literally slaughtered for our freedom. It’s an incredible sacrifice that needs to be remembered. How blessed we are to live, no matter what problems we face on a daily basis.
Life, despite its messiness, is still a wonderful gift to be given. We all have the capacity to be grateful for the life we have and steward it by seeing others as worthy of that gift also. What can you do to help someone live a better life?
We don’t have to smuggle children, but we may give our time to a cause, donate money to a charity, make a meal for a struggling mum, go the extra mile at work, defend a woman that’s being picked on at work, stand up for a man who is being ostracized for being different – the list is endless. Follow the prompting of your heart and look for people to help in small ways.
If a life is worth saving, it’s also worth helping to make it better.