WARSAW — The nondescript, industrial neighborhood where Irena Sendler spends her days is blocks from the Warsaw Ghetto where she helped rescue 2,500 children from Adolf Hitler’s wrath during World War II.
Nightmares about the children she was unable to save, as well as the ones who perished in concentration camps still haunt her, but the 98-year-old former Catholic social worker holds fast to a message of hope.
During an interview in the care center where Sendler resides, her daughter Janina said through an interpreter: “My mother’s hope is that such a war and Holocaust will never happen again, and that people will learn to be more tolerant. And they will be willing and ready to help the ones in need. She thinks it is human nature to help the weak ones and she doesn’t think about it in terms of courage. For her, it is the normal thing to do. It’s obvious that you should help the ones who need help.”
That said, Janina Sendler added, “Now, after 65 years, she wonders how she managed to do what she did.”
Sendler’s profile has risen in recent years largely because of a quartet of high school students from rural Kansas who fulfilled a history class assignment by writing about her heroism in a play, “Life in a Bell Jar.” The title references how she jotted down the given Jewish names and new identities of 2,500 children on thin tissue paper, sealed the lists in jars and buried them deep in the soil beneath an apple tree. She was undeterred by three German soldiers who lived next door or by the German barracks across the street. “They were hidden right in front of the Germans,” her daughter said.
Today, the first U.S. Irena Sendler award will be presented in Springville, N.Y. The second Polish one will be awarded in Warsaw on April 30. A nominee for last year’s Nobel Peace Prize, Sendler’s personal story also is the subject of a book, “Mother of the Holocaust Children,” published by Muza in Poland and Germany. It will be released in Spain and Israel in the coming months. Talks are also under way for the U.S. and U.K. but nothing has been completed, Janina Sendler said. The movie rights have been optioned to producers Jeff Most and Jeff Rice. Rumblings of Angelina Jolie’s interest in the project have not been substantiated. “We have heard some things, but we don’t ask details,” Sendler’s daughter said.
This story first appeared in the March 27, 2008 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Sendler is in an almost constant state of repose, so much so that Janina Sendler sits beside her for hours each day to assure she ingests the necessary fluids. While Sendler’s body is weak, her mental acuity is piercing. She keeps up-to-speed about world events by watching the news, which is sometimes trying.
“She wishes the world would be peaceful,” her daughter said. “She gets very emotional when she sees some of the strife on TV for any reason or in any country. She is especially upset about Israel and Palestine, and Lebanon. On one hand, she doesn’t want to watch it. But even if she switches the television off, she will call me and say, ‘Tell me what is going on.'”
Details of Sendler’s life are riveting. From the start of the war, she made false documents to help save Jewish people, said Norman Conard, director of the Life in a Jar Foundation and the teacher of the Kansas students. Later, using official passes issued by Warsaw’s Epidemic Control Department, Sendler frequented the heavily guarded Ghetto daily and set up a 25-person network within its walls.
Initially an estimated 450,000 Jews — almost 40 percent of Warsaw’s population — were sequestered by the Nazis in an area covering 16 city blocks. When thousands were said to be dying monthly of starvation, disease and deportation to the death camps, Sendler and her team went into action. Her mission involved persuading parents to part with their children and finding Christian families, orphanages and convents to house escapees and subsequently risk execution. Sendler smuggled children out by hiding them under stretchers in ambulances, shepherded them through sewer pipes, stashed them in suitcases or had them feign illness.
When the Gestapo stormed Sendler’s home to question her, one of her cohorts had the wherewithal to tuck the list into her bra. After that encounter, Sendler never kept the lists at home again. In the fall of 1943, Sendler was arrested, beaten and tortured by the Gestapo, who fractured her feet and legs with clubs. She kept mum and eventually went into shock — something she said saved her from disclosing secrets.
Sendler was sentenced to death. But Zegota, the code name for the Council for Aid to Jews, an underground operation, bribed a German officer to spare her life. He dug a hole under the side door of Pawiak prison where Sendler was held, and allowed her to limp away to the aid of a few Zegota members.
“The official announcement was she was listed as a shot person,” Sendler’s daughter said. That was something that Sendler later saw for herself on one of the many posters listing the executed. The German officer was shipped to the Eastern front. “When the Germans found out who helped her, they didn’t want to admit that it happened because it shouldn’t have,” her daughter said. “My mother only met the German officer once — when he gave her the signal she should run and escape.”
Once free, she assumed a new identity and lived in hiding, even skipping her mother’s funeral to avoid the Gestapo. After the war, she dug up the bottles to try to reunite the children with their parents. Even now, her will is steely. “Her message is, ‘Peace is most important,'” Janina Sendler said. “She expects people will want to do their part to keep peace in the world.”