In the last post, I introduced you to a woman I learned about while at Yad Vashem, the memorial to Holocaust victims in Jerusalem. Irena Sendler is one of the gentiles recognized in Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations. If you didn’t read that post, I encourage you to do so before diving into today’s reflection.
During our recent visit to Yad Vashem, the story was told of a young Jewish boy preparing for his bar mitzvah. The lad asked, “Rabbi, where was God during the Holocaust?” The teacher attempted to provide a plausible, intellectual answer, but the boy persisted, “But, Rabbi, WHERE WAS GOD during the Holocaust?”
Finally, the rabbi said, “I guess God was in the gentiles who helped Jews during the Holocaust.”
The Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations is a lovely area on the grounds of Yad Vashem, dedicated to the memory of gentiles willing to face danger of death at the hands of the Nazi regime in order to help their Jewish neighbors.
In today’s post I want to explore the heroism of one young gentile woman, Irena (Iliani) Sendler, who chose to reach beyond fear and danger rather than retreating or becoming immobilized by the horror of the Holocaust. Irena’s own words show the peril of her decision:
“To save one Jewish child, ten Poles and two Jews had to risk death. To betray that same child and the family that hid him required only one informer or, worse still, one blackmailer. The risk of being caught by the SS was not prison, but death – death for the entire family.”
Poland was invaded by the Nazis in 1939. Atrocities upon the nation are unthinkable. Almost two million non-Jewish citizens were murdered. Nazis forced large numbers of Jews into the Warsaw Ghetto. Many died while imprisoned there. Many more lost their lives in Auschwitz, the infamous Nazi prison camp. Eventually, over 3 million Polish Jews were annihilated.
Into this horror stepped Irena Sendler, a young woman who declared personal “war on Hilter.” Trained as a nurse and social worker when her country was invaded, Irena knew what the Nazi’s plans were for those living in the Warsaw Ghetto. She also knew she could not—would not—standby passively.
Part of Irena’s resolve came from a childhood message, “I was taught by my father that when someone is drowning you don’t ask if they can swim, you just jump in and help.”
Irena used resources available to her in order to develop a strategy to rescue babies and small children.
First, she used her education and experience as a nurse and social worker, convincing the Nazis to permit her entrance into the Warsaw Ghetto to assess deaths and disease. Her professional network of resources enabled her to locate safe havens such as convents, foster homes or adoptive families.
Next, Irena used her asset of an old pick-up truck. Into the back of the truck she loaded containers suitable to smuggle babies and small children out of the Ghetto. A tool box held infants; burlap bags worked for concealing smaller children.
But…as any of us who’ve been around little kids know, children are noisy. They cry. They cough. They fidget. Instructing a little one to be quiet is no easy task!
And…in order to exit the Ghetto, Irena needed to drive through a Nazi checkpoint. Discovery of the hidden children would not have ended well!
Irena’s ingenious remedy to this obstacle makes me chuckle every time I think about it. One of her resources was a small dog—a yappy, little dog—the kind of animal a lot of people disdain. Irena trained her pooch to bark like crazy at the site of soldiers in brown uniforms. I imagine the Nazi soldiers, stationed at the Warsaw Ghetto—soldiers familiar with vicious German Shepherds trained to terrorize—were especially contemptuous of Irena’s canine companion.
The little dog’s yapping concealed the children’s noise. The soldier’s contempt resulted in them waving the ‘harmless’ woman through their checkpoint.
Irena didn’t stop there. Because she understood the importance of statistical data, the young professional documented pertinent information about every child smuggled out of the Ghetto, hoping someday families could be reunited. She placed the data in jars and buried the receptacles.
The Nazis caught on to Irena’s activities. She was captured. She was beaten. Both her legs were broken, but this incredible woman’s spirit could not be broken. This quote provides insight into the source of Irena’s remarkable strength.
“Fear makes you weak; anger makes you strong.”
When the brutal war ended, she resurrected the statistical data of every child.
2500 babies and small children had been rescued by Irena!
When families could be located, children were reunited with relatives. Most, however, were no longer living. They’d been gassed at Auschwitz. Surviving orphans were at least given a link to their heritage because of Irena’s forethought and ability.
Irena lived many more years, dying at the age of 98. What a legacy her life left!
Since the moment I heard about Irena Sendler, her story has challenged me in ways unlike most others. There’s so much to be learned from her, but I’ve decided not to explore that topic right now. In the future I want to dissect some practical and valuable lessons each of us can learn from this remarkable woman. Until then I’m praying…
Blessings on whatever journey you’re taking right now…
Note: For more information about your own trip to Israel, we recommend highly Dan and Sharon Stolbarger, our group leaders. If this is a trip you’d love to make, check them out at http://holygroundexplorations.com/
- Irena Sendler Life in a Jar quotes taken from www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/ ↑