Thursday, March 3, 2011

98: The Self-Empowered Woman: Irena Sendler

Dear Followers,

Usually I learn about my blog subjects from media sources. But my dear friend (and author) Donna Brown Agins, introduced me to the inspiring story of Irena Krzyzanowska Sendler, a Polish Roman Catholic (3. Belief in the Unbelievable) social worker who became known as "the female Oskar Schindler."

Sendler was born in 1910. Her father was a physician who treated many Jewish patients whom other doctors would not treat, and in 1917, he contracted Typhus and died (1. No Paternal Safety Net). His grateful Jewish patients paid for Irena's education; in 1923 she got in trouble in school for defending a Jewish classmate by getting into a fistfight with two bullying girls (5. Life is Not a Popularity Contest).

By 1932, when Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, Sendler had become a social worker caring for unwed mothers and children. Seven years later, the Germans occupied Poland, and Sendler and her helpers began creating 3,000 false documents to help Jewish families escape. This was very risky because helping Jews in German-occupied Poland incurred the death penalty (11 . Risk Addiction).

Her organization, Zegota, had 23 female members and one man. Sendler's code name was Jolanta and she organized the work of smuggling children out of the Warsaw ghetto, where 500,000 Polish Jews lived in a one-square mile area. Since 6,000 people were dying each month from disease and starvation in the walled-off ghetto, Sendler and a colleague were given permission by the Warsaw Epidemic Control Department to enter legally on a daily basis (13. More Than Meets the Eye).

By 1942, "The Final Solution" and death camps had become public knowledge in Poland, so Sendler decided to smuggle out as many babies and children as possible. She would sedate the youngsters so they would remain quiet, and she was able to smuggle them out in packages, boxes and ambulances. They were placed in Catholic convents, parish rectories, and Polish families or the Warsaw orphanage of the Sisters of the Family of Mary. Over 2,500 children were rescued this way (7. Magnificent Obsession).

In 1943, the Gestapo arrested, tortured, and sentenced Sendler to death. Zegota bribed German guards on the way to her execution, and the Germans dumped her (with broken arms, legs and feet) in the woods (12. Hard Times). She lived in hiding as "Klara Dabrowska" for the rest of the war. Unbelievably, when the Soviets took over Poland after the war, she was again tortured because she had supported the Polish government in exile!

During her later years Sendler was honored by Israel, Pope John Paul II, and became the recipient of Poland's Order of White Eagle (the country's highest distinction). She was nominated in 2007 for the Nobel Peace Prize, but lost to Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

In spite of her truly brave heroic deeds, she once told an interviewer "We who were rescuing children are not some sort of heroes. That term irritates me greatly. The opposite is true - I continue to have qualms of conscience that I did so little. I could have done more. (10. The Critic Within) This regret will follow me to my death." In 2008, Irena died in a Polish nursing home at the age of 98.

Looking forward to your comments...

1 comment:

  1. This blog is truly an inspiration. You always write about the most amazing women to elevate our lives.

    Thank you for this posting on Irena Sendler. In these uneven times it's so nice to read about someone who rose above their own horrific times to triumph and truly become a hero. She is an example for us all.

    Though she may have had doubts about how much she accomplished in her own life, history has judged her kindly- and all of the honors bestowed upon her are well deserved.

    Excellent post.