Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Irena Sendler Story: An Honorary Citizen of Israel

Irena Sendler was 98 years old when she died in May of 2008.  Although she was not a Jew, she was an honorary citizen of Israel.  You should know why.
Born about 15 miles southeast of Warsaw, Irena was a 30-year old senior administrator in the city’s Social Welfare Department when the Nazis invaded Poland.  The department provided meals, medicine, and clothing to poor, elderly, and orphaned Poles.  Not long after the invasion she enlisted the aid of co-workers and began assisting Jewish families as well.
In 1942, when the Nazi’s established the Warsaw ghetto, Irena realized that the Jewish predicament was quickly degenerating.  She joined the Polish underground with a plan for rescuing Jewish children before they died.  She obtained a license to work as a plumbing and sewer specialist.  She also obtained a pass that allowed her to enter the ghetto as a representative of the Epidemic Control Department.  As her plan came together, she was able to take supplies into the ghetto and smuggle Jewish children out.
She would bring the children out in everything from sacks to toolboxes and coffins.  Some were hidden in carts under produce or other goods.  Even a dog catcher was used.  Often she would tape the mouths of babies and toddlers to that they would not make noise.  The dog catcher was especially effective as the barking dogs would keep the German guards at a distance.
Using her access to the sewer system, she was able to move the children about undetected until she could get them placed into one of more than 200 orphanages, convents, and other safe havens in and around Warsaw.  Her friends in the Welfare Department forged documents for the children, giving them Christian identities.
She once tried to describe how dangerous it was to smuggle or hide the children.  She said that there was nothing more dangerous at the time than hiding a Jew.  “You have a ticking time bomb in your home.  If they find out, they will kill you, your family, and the person you are hiding.”
Later in life she told how she still had recollections and nightmares, not so much of the smuggling itself, but of the hundreds of times that children and families wept as she took the children from her parents’ arms.  “Can you ensure their safety?” was the question she was most often asked.  She would answer that “No,” she could not.  She was frank enough to tell them that she couldn’t even guarantee that they would make it out of the ghetto alive.  It especially grieved her when parents would not let their children go.  She would always return to ask again, but sometimes the families were no longer there.
The German intelligence finally became aware of Irena’s activities.  They caught up with her on October 20, 1943, and took her to Pawiak prison.  Among the horrors that she faced there was having her legs and feet broken because she would not reveal the names of her co-conspirators.  She was being led to her execution along with a number of others, when one of the guards, who had been bribed by her friends in the underground, spirited her away unnoticed.  She went right back to rescuing more Jewish children.
Irena’s plan could not be completed until after the war.  She had kept meticulous track of the children and where they had been hidden through a collection of papers buried in glass jars beneath an apple tree in a neighbor’s yard.  When the war was over, she found that she had rescued over 2,500 children.  She set out finish the job by working to reunite the children with their parents.  Little had she thought aforetime that almost all of their parents would be killed in the death camps.
She would tell stories of how, years later, people would approach her and say, “I recognize you.”  They were children she had rescued.  That would be a moment of joy for most of us, but for Irena, she always said, “I could have done more.  This regret will follow me to my death.”
This is why Irena Sendler is an honorary citizen of Israel.
Let’s be thankful for her and many more like her.  Let’s pray that we would be as courageous if we were in a similar situation.  Let’s pray for God’s chosen people and for the peace of Jerusalem.
For more information on Irene Sendler click here:

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