Thursday, December 03, 2009

In Memory: Irena Sendler

It has been brought to my attention that there are factual errors in the section about Irena Sendler. These were posted inadvertently, as the result of having received a 'viral' email from a well meaning friend. I have corrected those errors and encourage all readers to visit the link provided for Irena Sendler, as well as the link to the documentary film made about her, provided in the comments section (comment no. 1). CrazyComposer.

Seventy years after the beginning of the Second World War, the second ‘war to end all wars’, the rhetoric regarding historical facts seems to be something that becomes more and more ‘up for debate’ with the passage of each day. At the same time, if one takes the time to look around it is still possible to see living examples of the uncommon heroes that resisted the tyrannical fascist machine as it attempted to devour Europe and all those who did not fit into the paradigm of the master race. The truth, as horrific as it may be, should not be allowed to be silenced even when it contradicts the sensibilities of those who are incapable of believing that an act so inconceivably evil was carried out against not only the Jewish people of Europe, but against the other perceived enemies of the Third Reich. The list of untermenschen (sub-humans) that the Nazis deigned unworthy of living, aside from der Juden (the Jews) under their rule included homosexuals, individuals with various disabilities, including mental illnesses and mental retardation, Magyars, Communists and other political activists, ethnic Poles and Slavs, and numerous religious individuals who would not bow to the regime of the crooked cross. While the pursuit of the truth, particularly in areas where the truth has been difficult to perceive in the past, is never something that should be discouraged, the increasingly common trend amongst those claiming to be scholars seems to demonstrate that there is something of a variable nature when considering historical facts. Many of these contemporary scholars have not been conducting research into issues surrounding the Second World War at all, preferring to indulge in their own ‘search’ for the truth. This has not involved research insomuch as it has served as an opportunity for these ‘researchers’ to codify their own warped opinions regarding what really happened during the Holocaust, placing their unsupportable assumptions alongside other conspiracy theories that are not founded in truth but rather in poorly crafted propaganda aimed at supporting the racist agendas that lead them down the road of historical revisionism, where changing facts rather than displaying any interest in the discovery or preservation of the truth becomes the priority.

The active distortion of history has become the vocation – perhaps something of an obsession – for several organizations operating with the singular purpose of distorting the history of the past in order to suit the ideological slant of their personal agendas. These overtly racist agendas that deny the attempted genocide of several peoples, not only the Jews, during one of the darkest periods in the history of humanity, can be found in many publications and across many websites that proclaim to preach the ‘truth’ about the ‘history’ of what happened during the war, only to proclaim insidious lies, distortions, and perversions of the truth that cannot be substantiated except with manufactured evidence and the fanatical ravings of neo-fascist evangelists who imagine the possibility of an eventual emergence of a Fourth Reich. These distortions and lies could not make up for the fact that the overwhelming historical evidence could not be dismissed so easily. The evidence of things that had not only been documented by first-hand observers and by those who escaped the horrors of the holocaust, bringing with them the testimony of their own survival may not be convincing enough for some, but when you pair that with the records kept by the very perpetrators of the acts themselves who, in their manic pursuit of creating a purified race, kept concise records regarding the numbers of innocent lives exterminated in the name of ethnic cleansing. Having had an opportunity to examine a great deal of this evidence as it has been well documented and verified by witnesses (proud Nazis who unrepentantly told of their exploits as members of the Einsatzgruppen), and having had the honour to meet some of the individuals who survived the holocaust, there is nothing that could shake my view of the historical facts that many try so desperately to invalidate with their ‘revised’ versions of history.

I grew up learning about the Holocaust from my family and from survivors that I met when visiting relatives in New York. There was never any doubt in my mind as to the horrors that had been inflicted upon humanity by the unchallenged evil that had been allowed to ravage Europe in the hopes that the Nazis would destroy the Soviets and still be brought under control when it became necessary. With the political foot-dragging by the United States the Nazi war machine was able to develop into the nearly unstoppable beast that it was, which ultimately nearly defeated the combined allied forces allayed against it; alas, this allowed for the extermination of many more innocent lives than if there had been a concerted effort to stop the genocidal acts of the Nazis from the beginning of their aggression in 1939. After everything that I had thought that I'd known about the atrocities of the Holocaust, and the stories of heroism that had come out of the unspeakable horrors, it surprised me to discover the existence of a woman who, like Oskar Schindler, saved the lives of thousands of Jews (in the case of Sendler 2,500 Jewish children).

Over a week ago I received an email from a friend telling me about the death of this hero about whom I had never heard, and yet I was deeply saddened to hear of her death, even at the age of 98. I could not help feel a sense of loss at not having had an opportunity to find out something about this remarkable woman before she died. Who was Irena Sendler? How had she managed to find herself in a situation where she could save the lives of 2,500 infants and children, smuggling them out of the Warsaw Ghetto in her plumbing toolbox? The story seems completely unbelievable ... and it is: that is what I received in an email, but it turns out that Irena was not a plumber at all, she worked as a senior administrator in the Warsaw Social Welfare Department, which operated canteens throughout the city, before the establishment of the Warsaw Ghetto. These canteens had provided meals as well as financial aid, clothing, medicine and money for the Jews who were registered under fictitious Christian names. In order to prevent inspections by the Nazis, Jewish families were reported as having highly infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and typhus.

Having read what little I have about Irena Sendler I feel deeply enriched for having discovered the story of her life, a story that I am now be able to share in some small part in order to battle those who attempt to perpetuate lies about the Holocaust which they maintain 'did not happen'.

The Warsaw Ghetto was established in 1942: a 16 block area in which hundreds of thousands of Jews were sealed behind walls, their dignity and hope stolen by the Nazis as everything they had was taken in exchange for the smallest advantage they could eek out in order to survive. When Irena Sendler saw the conditions of the Ghetto she decided to join the Zegota, the Council for Aid to Jews, which was organized by the Polish underground resistance movement and which carried out numerous operations throughout the occupation of Poland by the Nazis. Sendler was one of their first recruits and directed the rescue of Jewish children.

In order to enter the Warsaw Ghetto legitimately, Irena was issued a pass from the Epidemic Control Department (what would be considered a branch of the Public Health Department), which allowed her to visit the Ghetto on a daily basis. It was during this time that Irena Sendler, with the help of many others, including the assistance of the Polish church, that almost 2,500 children were saved from the clutches of the Nazis. The children were given a chance at the one thing the did not have in the Ghetto: life.

During the war Irena kept a record of the names of each of the children that she managed to smuggle out of the Warsaw Ghetto, hiding them in a glass jar under a tree in her backyard. At the end of the war it was her hope to reunite as many families as possible, but most of the parents had gone to the gas chambers and the majority of the children went into foster homes and were adopted.

For the acts of bravery that she committed, and for the danger that this put her in, Irena Sendler not only saved the lives of thousands, she paid a terrible price: she was captured by the Nazis and thrown into the Pawiak Prison where the Gestapo broke her feet and legs. If anyone deserved the honour, Irena Sandler was a woman who truly deserved to be ranked amongst the Righteous Among the Nations the Holocaust Memorial in Israel that includes Oskar Schindler and thousands of other non-Jews who risked their lives during the Holocaust to save the lives of Jews from the Nazis.

In May of 2007 Irena Sendler was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for her life saving actions during the Holocaust. The prize was awarded to former United States Vice-President Al Gore for his work on climate change. Irena Sendler passed away on May 12th, 2008. Her legacy lives on in the lives of each individual she saved and the families that they became.

(A documentary has been produced about Irena Sendler, 'In the Name of Their Mothers: The Story of Irena Sendler'. The url for this is in the first comment.)


IrenaSendlerFilm on PBS said...

Irena Sendler was a wonderful lady who did in fact organize a conspiracy of women to rescue thousands of Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto. But many of the other details in this viral email are inaccurate. Please don't perpetuate them. If you would like to know the real story as Irena Sendler told it, see our documentary film...

With respect,

Mary Skinner

Unknown said...

Thank you for your comment, Mary. I realized there were issues with the message I received and tried to sort out as much of them as I could before making this post. One of the things the original message said was that Irena was German rather than being Polish. It is my hope that what I presented, along with the link to more information, is as accurate as possible - without having spent an inordinate amount of time researching the topic which, I admit, I did not do (though I did check to see that her arms and legs had not been broken - her arms had not been broken by the Gestapo).

There is that saying, 'the devil's in the details' - I pray none of what I provided leads to anyone being misguided about the truth.


The History Man said...

I certainly agree with what you have posted. I work for a company called and we deal exclusively with original documents. There are only a couple of days left in December but until the year is over our Holocaust Records are free. If would be wonderful if you would create a page for Irena on our site. You can do that at your leisure. There is never a fee for that. Thank you for your comments.

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