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A salute to a forgotten heroine

A salute to a forgotten heroine

When the Nazis caught up with Irena Sendler in 1943 they beat and tortured her for saving thousands of Warsaw Jews from the Holocaust. Sendler was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 but didn't win. Lore Fredstrom, MA'97, argues that's a shame.

Sixty-four years after Polish social worker Irena Sendler (Sendlerowa) repeatedly risked her life to rescue thousands of Jewish children and adults from extermination by the Nazis, she was finally nominated for Nobel Peace Prize in 2007. Yet she did not win. The prize went to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC ) and its spokesman former U.S. Vice-President Al Gore Jr.

Irena SendlerIrena Sendler, circa 1943, and as she looked in her later years.

While the 2007 Laureates no doubt deserved the honour, I had to wonder why Irena Sendler was overlooked. As one of the many thousands of children orphaned, and rescued (in my case, by a Mennonite family), in WWII, I coukdn’t help but feel disappointed. What makes me downright sad, however, is that until an acquaintance recently forwarded an article about Sendler, I had not heard her name, not even during my student years at St. Thomas University and later at Queen's.

When Germany occupied Poland in 1939, Sendler was a 29-year-old senior administrator in the Warsaw Social Welfare Department, providing soup kitchens, financial assistance and other essential services to the city's elderly and poor, including war orphans. She had the courage to risk her life by supplying forged documents with Christian identities for Jewish adults and children so they could receive these services.

When that no longer seemed enough, she joined the Zegota (Council for Aid to Jews, and part of the Polish underground resistance) as head of its children's section, took the code name "Jolanta," and recruited a group of friends to help her rescue 2,500 children directly from the Warsaw Ghetto. The youngsters were given Christian identities and placed in orphanages, convents, and with sympathetic families. Their birth names were squirreled away in a glass jar buried for secrecy.

Her persecution ended with the demise of Communist rule in 1990, but by then Irena "Jolanta" Sendler was 80, and her story was all but erased from the collective minds of her countrymen.

On October 20, 1943, "Jolanta" was caught and locked into Pawiak prison in Warsaw. Although the Nazis tortured her—to the extent that she needed crutches and a wheelchair the rest of her life—she refused to divulge either the names of her collaborators or those of the individuals who had been rescued. Luckily, just before her execution by firing squad, the Zegota underground managed to bribe a guard. "Jolanta" was sprung and went into hiding. Yet she continued her rescue efforts until war’s end, and for many years after that tried to re-connect with their birth-families the rescued children whose names she had tucked into that glass jar.But most parents and relatives had either been killed at Treblinka, or otherwise disappeared.

When Poland was occupied by the Soviets after the war, Irena Sendler was persecuted by the anti-Semitic communist Polish state, branded a Fascist (for her WWII underground activities), and was accused of supporting the government-in-exile and its Polish "home army." Her persecution ended with the demise of Communist rule in 1990, but by then Irena "Jolanta" Sendler was 80, and her story was all but erased from the collective minds of her countrymen.

Still, she was not forgotten everywhere. In 1965, the State of Israel awarded her the Righteous Among the Nations medal; it was confirmed by the Israeli Supreme Court in 1983, when Irena Sendler also received the Commander's Cross from the Israeli Institute. In 2003 Pope John Paul II sent her a personal letter of praise. That same year she received the Order of the White Eagle (Poland's highest civilian decoration) and the Jan Karski award "For Courage and Heart" (from the American Center of Polish Culture). Then, in 2007, the now 97-year-old Irena Sendler was honoured by Poland's Senate. Unable to leave her nursing home, she responded with a statement delivered by Elzbieta Ficowska, who had been one of the infants she saved during WWII. And it was perhaps this irony that made Polish President Lech Kaczynski break the Nobel secrecy code, stating that Sendler "can justly be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize."

Why did she not win the Prize? That may not be truly understood for another 47 years (Nobel's 50-year nomination secrecy). But one reason cited by various sources is the Nobel Prize criterium, which states that a nominee be involved in "significant activities during the past two years." For Irena "Jolanta" Sendler that period fell between her 95th and 97th birthdays, when she was already living in a nursing home. Yet she did get one more medal in 2007: She was the oldest recipient, ever, of the international Order of the Smile for exceptional love, care, and aid to children. If she could not have a Nobel Prize, that honour does seem most appropriate

For more information on Irena Sendler, please visit http://www.irenasendler.org/