Humanitarian’s legacy of inspiration remains strong

The other day I watched a DVD about a courageous young woman who, during the horrors of the Second World War, helped rescue more than 2,500 Jewish children from the German-occupied Warsaw ghettos.

Irena Sendler, who passed away in 2008 at the age of 93, was a social worker at the time. She helped to organize a system of providing the children with false identity documents and transporting them to homes where they would be safe. She and her co-workers also buried lists of the hidden children in jars in order to keep track of their original and new identities. The plan was that, when the war was over, they would be returned to Jewish relatives.

According to the web site History’s Heroes, from the outbreak of the war, Sendler was always concerned about the plight of the Jewish people. She risked her life by giving them food and shelter. At the time of the creation of the Warsaw Ghetto, she was working for the city’s health and care department as a nurse and social worker.

“Sendler organized and directed a children’s rescue group amongst her colleagues, to smuggle Jewish children from the Ghetto. The task was momentous. Behind the high walls enclosing the Ghetto, the people were packed together in appalling conditions. They smuggled out the children in many ingenious ways (in tool boxes, in coffins, through churches and cellars) and arranged for them to be taken to emergency safe houses.”

The risk of execution was always a frightening reality, but it never deterred Sendler from boldly moving forward with her mission.

Eventually, the Nazis did learn about her efforts, and she was arrested in 1943. She was tortured and sentenced to death.

According to History’s Heroes, during her interrogation, they broke her legs and feet but she refused to reveal any names. “On the way to her execution she escaped, with the help of friends, and went into hiding.”

Watching the film, (The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler), I was struck by the bravery of Sendler. In spite of unimaginable surroundings when people lived in constant fear for their lives, she pressed on with a single-minded commitment and devotion to her cause. For Sendler, there simply was no other choice – these children needed to be rescued and that was that. In spite of the reality that such work could cost her her own life, she didn’t waver.

It’s always inspiring to learn of such people down through history, and obviously there were many like her during those terrible years who put their own lives on the line in their struggles to help others.

When the war was over Sendler passed the list of the children’s names to the Central Committee of Jews in Poland. Sadly, most of their parents had been murdered in the Treblinka death camp, where approximately 777,000 people were transported. The list was taken to Israel where it was copied many times.

After the war, Sendler reportedly went on to live ‘an ordinary life’. Clearly, her life and her profoundly moving legacy were anything but ordinary. And like a true hero, Sendler even indicated that she didn’t feel like she did enough. Neither did she wish for any acclaim.

She was honoured, however, but she had to wait a long time to collect an award given to her by the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. She was one of the first to be given the ‘Righteous Gentiles’ honour for wartime heroics, in 1964. The Communist regime in Poland would not give her a passport and she had to wait until 1984 to collect it.

And as mentioned, amazingly, in spite of her selfless efforts to help others, she somehow felt she should have done more. Such an attitude, when considering the incredible difference she made in so many lives, is hard to understand. But it offers us a closer look into the heart of an amazing human being.

“I continue,” she said, “To have pangs of conscience that I did so little.”