If someone were drowning, whether you knew how to swim or not, would you save them?
This is one of the sayings that Irena Sendlerowa’s father told her to remember and use as a model for her life. As a young Catholic social worker living in Nazi-occupied Poland during World War II, “Irena Sendler” made this question her life’s testament by saving Jewish children and orphans from the Warsaw Ghetto.
January 27 is designated by the U.N. as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. This day of remembrance is appropriate for National Sanctity of Life Month. We may first think of respecting life in terms of the unborn, but being pro-life means honoring life in all stages. The horror of the Holocaust violated a respect for life. Many Catholics during this period of time understood the threat anti-Semitism brought to humanity. It’s not surprising many Catholics aided in protecting Jews and other targets of the Nazi Party.
Irena Sendler was not a commonly known hero of the Holocaust until nearly a decade ago when four high school girls from rural Kansas created a 1999 National History Day (History Fair) performance focusing on the heroine. “We saw a 1994 U.S. News & World Report that was five years old [at the time we read it] with a clipping entitled, ‘Other Schindlers,’ and Irena Sendler was listed as saving at least 2,500 children,” said Megan Stewart-Felt, one of the four students who created Life in a Jar: The Irena Sendler Project. “ ‘Irena Sendler’ received one hit on Google in 1999,” said Felt. “Today I type in her name and have more than 767,000 hits.”
Sendler’s work in saving Jews didn’t start with her efforts in saving children in the Warsaw Ghetto. As a young university student, Sendler made false documents for Jewish friends and others in the Warsaw area from 1939 to 1942 before she joined the underground Zegota, a Polish underground group to assist Jews.
“Life in a Jar” describes perfectly the actions Sendler used to save Jewish children in the Warsaw Ghetto. Sendler, along with 10 others under her direction, implemented various tactics of getting children past Nazi guards. Several of these tactics included Sendler posing as a nurse taking “sick” or “dead” children out of the ghetto, smuggling a five-month-old baby in a carpenter’s box and using a barking dog to conceal the crying children, hindering Nazi guards from thoroughly examining the cargo vehicle.
Sendler then adopted the children into homes of Polish families or hid them in Catholic convents, orphanages, and parish rectories. Priests and monks provided some Jewish children and adults with false baptismal certificates to pose as Catholics. AmericanCatholic.org quotes Szymon Datner, a Jewish historian, as saying about Catholic nuns, “No other sector was so ready to help those persecuted by the Germans. This attitude, unanimous and general, deserves recognition and respect.” To ensure the children would one day discover their true identity, Sendler made lists of the children’s real names and family information and concealed them in jars she buried in her garden.
Nazi’s did capture Sendler. She was beaten severely and even scheduled for execution, but the Polish underground bribed a guard to release her and she entered into hiding. Sendler passed away at the age of 98 on May 12, 2008. Just one year before, Sendler was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway for her courage and valor in saving Jewish children. Additionally, Yad Vashem recognized Sendler in 1965 as Righteous Among the Nations.
During National Sanctity of Life Month and International Holocaust Remembrance Day, it’s important to reflect and gain inspiration from everyday heroes, such as Irena Sendler, whose actions saved many lives, often at great risk to their own.
Dana Edwards is a recent graduate of the University of Florida. She currently resides in Tallahassee, Florida where she works as a Digital Strategist, and volunteers as a lector and with communication outreach at her local parish, Good Shepherd Catholic Church.