Every so often, I come across a remarkable story of indefinable proportions, that has me questioning just how useless I am personally, and how tangled I am in my own life, in my own selfish need for the next commodity to hit the shelves, that I forget just how incredible stories of courage and human kindness actually are.
We as a rule, tend to publically canonise those who have achieved nothing spectacular or worthy of the level of praise and admiration they seem to command. They haven’t enriched our lives. They simply offer something to read about, gossip about, and quite ridiculously, look up to.
Celebrities become commodities for the public to chew up and spit out one year, and idolise the next, depending on the sort of attention the Great British Media chose to lavish onto them. A few months ago, it was Jade Goody. To me, the Princess Diana-esque way her death was handled, even before she died, stretches to the very essence of consumerism and the negativity it embodies at it’s most fundamental level. Those worthy of praise and admiration largely go unnoticed and unpublicised, the noise of their names goes unheard, drowned out by the noise of the split between Peter and Jordan, or who Charlotte Church was seen with this week.
We tend to overuse the word “hero”. We celebrate footballers as heroes, actors as heroes, musicians as heroes, and so we ultimately forget as generation after generation passes down their own interpretation of “hero”, what the word actually means.
During an era of unimaginable horror and destruction, in which the lives of six million were exterminated, including 1.5 million children, there exists enduring stories that no matter how unknown they are today, will pass through time as stories of ultimate courage, sacrifice, compassion and indefinable love.
Yesterday, marked a year since the death of the remarkable Irena Sendler, a social worker from Warsaw. Irena was born in 1910, and lived in Warsaw, Poland when the Nazis invaded in 1939. Irena worked was in charged of so-called “Canteens” set up to help the homeless and orphaned children, to provide food and shelter, clothing and medicine.
The Nazis set up the Warsaw Ghetto, cramped 50,000+ Jews together in horribly confined spaces without enough food or shelter to go around. Irena set up a false name, and was allowed access to the Ghetto, claiming she was a nurse, in control of epidemic handling. Whilst there, she secretly smuggled in food, medicine, money, clothes, and other necessities. She however, could not prevent over 2000 people a month dying from disease and starvation. She then found out that the children would soon be on their way to Treblinka death camp, and so she decided that enough was enough.
Irena set about smuggling children out of the Ghettos. She tasked herself with persuading Jewish mothers to part with their children, which she later said was the most difficult thing she’s ever had to do, noting “In my dreams ,I still hear the cries when they left their parents” and then to persuade Polish families on the outside, to look after the children, on fear of being caught and executed by the Nazis. She dedicated her war days to this task. She issued children with false documents, in order to smuggle them out in an Ambulance. Some were even take out in body bags, some in suit cases, some in sacks of potatoes and other foods, as Irena convinced the Nazi guards that they had died. She arranged for all 2,500 children that she had saved, to be issued with false identities as Christians, and re-homed. She kept the true identities of the children, written in code, on a piece of paper, buried in a jar in her neighbour’s back yard in the hope that the Nazis would be defeated one day, and that she could locate all the children and let them know of their true identities.
In 1943, the Nazis discovered what she had been doing. They arrested her and tortured her, in order to get the names of all the children who had escaped, and all the families who were protecting them. They broke her legs, and her feet, and they crippled her for life. She refused to give up any names. They then sentenced her to death. Luckily, her friends who had helped her in Warsaw, bribed a Gestapo member, and Irena escaped, at the very last minute before execution.
After the war, she set about meeting all the 2,500 children she had rescued and spending decades trying to find records of any remaining family members they may have, in order to reunite them with their children, brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews who had survived the holocaust.
Irena Sendler, who died on May 12th 2008, is quite possibly one of the most couragous and brilliant women of the twentieth century, she not only saved 2,500 children from almost certain horrific deaths, she is responsible for the generations of offspring those 2,500 have produced. The grandchildren and great grandchildren of those 2,500 children are now walking the streets, playing in the fields, and becoming the teachers, the scientists, the doctors of tomorrow. Irena Sendler gave them that opportunity, when otherwise, all would have been lost before the 1950s. She never claimed any sort of recognition, and lived a humble existence in a small place, throughout the rest of her life. A remarkable woman, who led a life suited to true heroes and heroines of history. Despite her name being relatively unknown, her legacy, her courage, and her incredible compassion for 2,500 people and the families they created, is far superior to any amount of press. Perhaps in a World where selfishness is encouraged, a woman who acted in the most selfless way imaginable, and claimed no publicity or admiration, has the power to turn more heads, and influence more people to act in the interests of others, than if it were an every day occurrence. Nevertheless, the story of Irena Sendler, when I first read about her in 2008, months before she died, certainly impacted on my view of the World, of the power of compassion, and of humanity, and that can only be a good thing.
“Every child saved with my help is the justification of my existence on this Earth, and not a title to glory”.
- Irena Sendler