What happens when an ordinary Polish woman encounters extraordinary evil? Well, she saves 2,500 Jewish children.
This past week, PBS premiered the latest film by Ken Burns. His subject was Waitstill Sharp, a Unitarian minister and his wife Martha, who, during World War II, helped smuggled at least 150 Jews out of Nazi-controlled areas, operating first in Prague and then in Lisbon.
It’s a remarkable story that is worth telling and hearing.
And there’s another story involving the rescue of as many as 2,500 Jews that Glenn Sunshine recently brought to our attention. And I promise, it’s a story that’s also worthy of your attention.
The protagonist of this story was a 29-year-old Polish social worker named Irena Sendler. Her responsibilities included taking care of countless people who had been dispossessed by the German occupation of her country.
The most vulnerable and most dispossessed were Warsaw’s Jews. Four hundred thousand of them were crowded into a three-and-one-half square mile area. At great personal risk, Sendler found a way to enter the Ghetto, which was off-limits to non-Jewish Poles, to see how she could help relieve the appalling conditions.
As her biographer wrote “Irena knew she had to help the sick and starving Jews who were imprisoned in the Warsaw Ghetto. She began by smuggling food, clothing, and medicine into the ghetto.”
But in the fall of 1942, half of the Ghetto’s inhabitants were deported to the Treblinka death camp, where they were immediately gassed upon arrival.
This barbarity led Sendler and her co-conspirators to declare war on Hitler and to redouble their efforts. Working in concert with Catholic orphanages, especially the Family of Mary orphanage in Warsaw, Sendler, code-named “Jolanta,” and her co-conspirators helped smuggle out an estimated 2,500 Jewish children by whatever means possible: hiding them in coffins, potato sacks, even in a tool box.
Not surprisingly, this kind of resistance to evil eventually caught the attention of the evil-doers. In October, 1943, Sendler was arrested by the Gestapo. Though brutally tortured, she refused to betray her network or give up the names and locations of the children she smuggled out of the Ghetto. After being sentenced to death, she managed to escape with the help of well-placed bribes.
You would think that such a Polish patriot would have been honored after the fall of the Third Reich, but you’d be wrong. The Communist government imprisoned and tortured Sendler after the war because her brand of resistance—Catholic and non-communist—was the “wrong” kind of resistance.
Even after Israel bestowed the title “Righteous Among the Nations” on Sendler, the communist government refused to recognize her heroism. It even refused to allow Sendler to travel to Tel Aviv to receive her award and see the tree planted in her name along the Avenue of the Righteous.
Not much was known about Sendler’s story here in the U. S. until the late 1990s, when Kansas high schoolers researched her life and wrote a play about her called “Life in a Jar,” which was later adapted into a Hallmark Hall of Fame TV special.
Now based on what we know about Sendler, the lack of notoriety probably didn’t bother her. As she told the Polish Senate shortly before her death, “Every child saved with my help and the help of all the wonderful secret messengers, who today are no longer living, is the justification of my existence on this earth, and not a title to glory.”
Likewise, until her death in 2008, she rejected the title “hero” and said she was haunted by her failure to do more.
But of course she was a hero, a Christian whose courage should serve as an inspiration to us all and a reminder that the most ordinary of people can make an extraordinary difference.
For more on Irena Sendler and the “Life in a Jar Project,” which tours the play about her life, please visit BreakPoint.org and click on this commentary.
Saving the Children: The Story of Irena Sendler
Learn more about the courageous but little-known Irena Sendler. Click on the resources below to get more details on her life. For accounts of other Christians who made a difference, check out Glenn Sunshine’s series “Christians Who Changed Their World,” linked below.
The Irena Sendler Project
Irena Sendler: In the Name of Their Mothers
PBS video project
Irena Sendler, in memoriam
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Christians Who Changed Their World
Glenn Sunshine | ColsonCenter.org
The Hiding Place
Corrie Ten Boom | Chosen Books
The Cost of Discipleship
Dietrich Bonhoeffer | Touchstone Books
Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy
Eric Metaxas | Thomas Nelson Publisher | January 2010