The Black Sky (1910)
“Keynmol fargesn!” “Never forget!” was the rallying cry of the Warsaw Ghetto. The doomed Resistance fighters’ plea was for the world to remember the systematic slaughter of Poland’s Jews. Yet history should also never forget the bravery of those who fought the forces of darkness. One of these was a diminutive woman who cast a giant light.
A proverb-purportedly of Chinese origin-states, “May you live in interesting times.” Although sounding like a blessing it is meant as a curse- to live in a time of turmoil. This was all too true of Irena, the only child of Dr. Stanislaw Krzyanowski and his wife Janina. The Roman Catholic family lived in Otwock, a town not far from Warsaw, in the midst of a Jewish community. The strong sense of morality that was to define her life was instilled by her father who told her when she was seven years old, “If you see someone drowning you should jump into the water to save them, whether you can swim or not.” Dr. Krzyanowski was the only physician who treated patients with typhus, a disease to which he succumbed.
Irena studied Polish literature at the University of Warsaw that had segregated seating based on religion. When thugs attacked her Jewish friend, she defaced her card that allowed her to sit in the Aryan section. For the infraction, she was suspended for three years. After reinstatement, she became a member of the socialist party, married Mieczyslaw Sendler and obtained a position as a social worker. Her life was irrevocably altered in 1939 when the Nazis goose-stepped into Poland. Waves of bombers, tanks and Wehrmacht divisions forced Poland to her knees, and the first order of business of the Occupation was to force the Jews to wear armbands with the Star of David and to deprive them of basic human rights. In 1940, the German Governor Ludwig Fischer created the Warsaw Ghetto into which the country’s Jews were concentrated. The area, roughly the size of Central Park, was surrounded by 10 foot high walls, topped with broken glass. It overflowed with 450,000 unfortunate souls, and starvation, disease and despair ruled the streets while corpses lay on the sidewalks covered with newspaper, makeshift shrouds. Sendler said, “If you had seen the Ghetto, it was pure hell beyond description.” Once again, Irena decided to ‘sit’ with the Jews. She and her fellow social workers gathered in Irena’s second floor flat. In between cigarettes and glasses of cordial they decided it was time for David to wage war against Goliath. All they needed was a slingshot and it appeared when typhus ravaged the Ghetto.
Fearful of the outbreak spreading to the Aryan sector, the Germans allowed Polish medical groups to enter the arena of contagion, and this provided a ray of light to the beleaguered. Irena had made contact with Zegota, an underground organization- financed by the Polish government in exile- to save the Jews. They issued Sendler, and her friend Irena Schultz, doctored documents stating they were nurses. In solidarity with the Jews and to blend in, they donned Star of David armbands. In addition to providing medicine they hid under their clothing lard, meat and money; later they were to engage in another type of smuggling.
Terror ruled the Ghetto when the handful of those who had managed to flee sent back word of camps such as Treblinka and Auschwitz which specialized in slave labor, starvation, sickness, brutality and medical experiments, ending with gas chambers and crematoria. The Jews, though unsure what was rumor and what was truth, became ever more desperate. Without identification cards, families who attempted escape were sitting ducks. Roving gangs of Polish youth received a stipend for capturing Jews and turned them over to the Gestapo. Zegota knew they had to take more drastic measures. Under the code name Jolanta, Irena became Zegota’s most intrepid member and her role was to rescue the children. Along with approximately 30 volunteers, mostly women, they secured safe houses and found secret routes. While the connotation of ‘smuggling’ is negative, their clandestine actions made them the 1940s conductors of an underground railroad.
The band of Resistance fighters, led by the 29 year-old, 4’10 Irena, spirited away infants and toddlers wrapped up in packages, suitcases, and potato sacks. Sometimes the getaway was accomplished through the sewer system beneath the city. An ambulance driver hid infants beneath the stretchers in the back of his van, while the barks from his dog masked any cries. Because the Ghetto abutted the Jewish cemetery, the Resistance placed children in coffins; to prevent their cries they taped their mouths or used sedation. While arranging the escapes were the most daunting aspect of her rescue missions, the most heart-rending was separating the children from their families.
Jolanta approached parents and offered to arrange passage for their sons and daughters. When they asked what guarantee she could offer she could only reply there was not even a guarantee they could slip past the Ghetto guards. However, if they did so, the youngsters would live out the remainder of the war in convents, in the homes of Christian sympathizers, or Aryan orphanages. The families were caught in a variation of a Sophie’s choice: should they trust a stranger or did they keep their loved ones together? Sendler would be forever haunted with these meetings: sometimes there would be deep divisions as to what they should do. Indecision became decisions; more than once, Irena returned to the apartment of a wavering couple only to discover they had all been taken to the Umschlagsplatz railway siding for transport to the death camps. Some, fearing the worst, would plant a final kiss on the little ones’ faces, take a parting hug. A mother handed over her six month old baby, Elzbieta, along with a memento of a silver teaspoon with her name and birth date.
Even post escape, the refugees walked hand-in-hand with danger. Couriers took the displaced to temporary housing where the children acquired Christian names and received doctored baptismal certificates. The older ones learned to make the sign of the Cross and memorized Catholic prayers; those who looked Semitic had their dark hair bleached blonde. The boys not only lost their parents, their names and their religion, but their sexual identity as well. Males dressed in female clothing as the Gestapo checked for circumcision, something only Jews underwent at the time.
As dozens of countries became collapsing dominoes under the swastika it seemed as if Hitler would never loosen his grip on Europe’s throat. However, Irena believed in the ultimate victory of good over evil. With the same organizational brilliance she used to plan escapes, she devised a plan to reunite families when the madness had run its course.
Oskar Schindler was not the only one who kept a list. After each rescue mission, Irena recorded, in code, the children’s Jewish and Christian names and addresses, alongside the names of their parents, on slips of paper. She placed these in glass jars which she buried under an apple tree. Edmund Burke wrote, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” This righteous Gentile, even though her life was in jeopardy, could not adopt the stance of the three proverbial monkeys.
Irena Sendler knew she was living on borrowed time, and it ran out in 1943. The owner of a laundry that had served as an underground meeting locale, under less than gentle persuasion, betrayed Jolanta. They arrested her and sent her to the dreaded Pawiak Prison where she refused to identify the members of her organization or the whereabouts of the children. Over her three months of captivity Irene continued her resistance to tyranny. When she worked in the prison laundry she and her fellow prisoners made holes in the German soldiers’ underwear. After their brand of sabotage was discovered, the guards lined up all the women and shot every other one. It was just one of the many times Irena cheated death. During one brutal torture session, her jailers used clubs to get her to talk, and though they shattered the bones in her legs and feet she refused to divulge information. Even under Gestapo terror, the indefatigable Irene determined to still rise. In death, as in life, she would endure with dignity intact.
At the last minute the woman who had rescued others was herself rescued. On the day she was to face a firing-squad, the Zegota bribed an officer with a backpack full of dollars who allowed her to escape. En route to her rendezvous with death the guard told her, “You lousy thug, get lost” and punched her in the mouth before he threw her to the side of the road. She said of this episode, “It is beyond description to tell you what you feel when travelling to your own execution and, at the last moment, you find you have been bought out.” The officials posted her name on a public bulletin board as one of those killed as a traitor to the Reich and like her children, she went into hiding under an assumed name. Fearful of detection, she was unable to attend her beloved mother’s funeral.
During her months of convalescence Irena could easily have descended into bitterness. Her country had been overrun, she had witnessed the worse of human depravity, and had endured imprisonment and torture. And yet she determined to still rise. If she had given way to hate, the butchers would have won. After she had recovered, her body permanently scarred and left with a life-long limp, under another alias she returned to her rescue mission. During those dark days she clung to the hope of a Nazi defeat, when she could reunite the fractured families. This possibility became ever more remote after Heinrich Himmler visited the Polish town of Poznan in 1943 and told fellow SS officers of his promise to the Fuhrer: for his April 20th birthday- the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto.
Hitler’s 1,000 year Reich ended two years later when the Red Army liberated Poland and Irena unearthed the jars and handed over her lists to the Jewish Committee. For most, there was no happy ending-the gas chambers of Treblinka had seen to that.
After the war the communists saw her not as a heroine, but as an agitator, and Irena Sendler fell under their radar. Her marriage ended in divorce and she married Stefan Zgrzembski, with whom she had three children. Her daughter Janka said while her mother may have been there for the children of the Ghetto, she was not there for her own family as she was committed to working with many who had survived the Ghetto. She also recalled Irena’s fragile emotional state: she was petrified of thunder and fireworks as it reminded her of shooting. One could survive the Shoah, but not its memories. Her marriage dissolved after 12 years at which time she remarried Sendler, but they again parted ways.
Irena Sendler would have lived her life in obscurity until, in 1965, she became one of the first Righteous Gentiles to be honored by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem. Poland’s Soviet leaders would not permit her to travel to Israel, and she was unable to collect the award until 1983.
However, her life remained essentially forgotten for sixty years until four teenage girls from Kansas discovered the story of the Angel of Warsaw-as she was dubbed-and achieved acclaim. They turned her life into a play-Life in a Jar- performed across America. When they discovered she was in a care facility in financial straits they passed around a jar-symbolic of the one use for her children- on her behalf.
Although suffering from osteoporosis and her eyesight failing she kept abreast of politics and wrote the American girls George W. Bush was a bastard. Her translator was shocked at the elderly saint’s language. Under Solidarity she became a heroine in Poland and received her country’s highest honor: the Order of the White Eagle. She was too frail to attend and Elzbieta read her statement-one that could serve as her epitaph. “Every child saved with my help is the justification of my existence on the Earth, and not a title to glory.” In a nod to her father she had devoted her life to those who were drowning. Israel made her an honorary citizen and Pope John Paul II wrote a letter commending her bravery.
The spotlight of international fame arrived in 2007 with the nomination of Irena Sendler for the Nobel Peace Prize. The Swedish Committee passed her over in favor of Al Gore; apparently,they felt global warning triumphed over the rescue of 2,500 children from the jaws of the Nazis.
The modern day saint passed away at age 98, and at her deathbed was one of her rescued children. She said of her savior, “She was the brightest star in the black sky of the Occupation.”