<Some of what’s below came to me from independent filmmaker Roberta Pyzel and the folks at Snopes>
On May 12, 2008, 98-year-old Irena Sendlerowa/Irena Sendler passed away. During World War II, she received permission to work in the Warsaw Ghetto (and if you don’t know what that was, look it up) as a Plumbing/Sewer specialist. She had an ulterior motive in her request to work there, because she knew what the Nazis had planned for the Jews incarcerated in the Ghetto. Irena smuggled infants out of the Ghetto in the bottom of her tool box. Older children were smuggled out in a burlap sack in the back of her truck. She traveled with her dog, and trained the animal to bark when the Nazi soldiers let her in and out of the Ghetto. The soldiers wanted nothing to do with the animal, and the barking covered up any noise the children might make.
Irena managed to smuggle out and save an estimated 2500 children. When she was finally caught, the Nazis broke her legs and arms, and beat her severely. Irena had retained a record of the names of every child she smuggled out of the Ghetto. She kept them in a glass jar, buried under a tree in her back yard and refused to divulge their location. After the war (and her miraculous survival), she dug up those lists and attempted to find any surviving parents with the intent of reuniting them with their children. Most of the adults had been gassed. The majority of the children were placed in foster homes or adopted.
In 2007, Irena was up for the Nobel Peace Prize (there is a bit of debate about her “nomination;” see Snopes for details) Suffice to say, she was not selected.
I imagine there must have been days and nights when Irena was terrified…not only for her life, but by her temerity. The Nazis may have been the minority, but the power they wielded was enormous. Still, she went against them, moving in the furtive dance she had conceived, risking her life so that others might live because she knew in the depths of her soul that what was happening in the Warsaw Ghetto and elsewhere was nothing less than atrocity.
What must it have been like — one woman against that machine? Yes, there were others. There must have been a network to help her move each child from point A to point B…all the way to safety and a change for life anew. What must it have been like for those parents to hand over their children to a woman (a German woman, no less) they “hoped” they could trust? What must it have been like to watch her place your baby into the bottom of a tool box and spirit it away, knowing you would never see your child again?
A friend of mine (after reading the story about Irena) wrote to me: “It never ceases to amaze me, the courage of certain individuals.” You know, there’s all sorts of bravery out there, every day; “little” bits of bravery achieved by people just like us. Maybe they are us. Most of it doesn’t make the headlines. Most of it we don’t even hear about, ever.
Courage doesn’t come from being brave. It comes from a willingness, a need, a conviction to face your fears. That doesn’t mean you don’t live with the fear. It doesn’t mean you make it vanish. It means you stare it straight in the face and declare “You are WRONG!”
Do you think Irena was remembered in prayers by every parent who gave their child into her safekeeping? Do you think she was remembered by the children she spirited out of that foul place? Do you think she was remembered by those lucky families who adopted those children? So what if Irena didn’t get recognition from the Nobel Peace Prize? She didn’t do what she did because she wanted recognition. She did it because it was the right thing to do.
We should all do so well.