Lesson #311: Irena Sendler’s Resistance Movement

For someone who studies revolutions, I do an amazing job of neglecting the individual in favour of the larger picture. But sometimes, I get reminded of the individual. Today’s lesson comes on the heels of something my sister-in-law posted on Facebook yesterday. My problem with it wasn’t that it wasn’t accurate (well, it was mostly accurate), it was that it minimized the accomplishments of a single woman into a handful of talking points to argue against Al Gore. I get that that was sort of the purpose of this “let’s list all the awesome SO YOU CAN SEE WHERE THE NOBEL COMMITTEE WENT HORRIBLY WRONG!”* post, but if can’t be timely with your point, at least be thorough.

Irena Sendler was born with rebellion in her genes; her great-grandfather was shipped off to Siberia,** her father — a doctor — spent a lot of time caring for Jews, who, let’s be honest, have never historically been the most popular group of people. While her father’s colleagues shunned the Jewish community, her father embraced them and wound up dead of typhoid in 1917. Due to the financial support of the Jewish community, she was able to attend the University of Warsaw, where she defaced the part of her student card that allowed her to sit on the “Aryan” benches in her classrooms*** after seeing a Jewish friend beaten by a group of nationalists. The university suspended her for three years.

And then there was the war.

As early as the first days of the German occupation of Poland in 1939,**** Sendler and like-minded gentiles were forging papers to help Jewish families escape the country. Before she even joined the resistance movement, Żegota, when it was created in the autumn of 1942 (after mass transports between late July and late September sent somewhere between 250,000 and 300,000 of the ghetto population to Treblinka), Sendler and her co-conspirators had drafted more than 500 false papers.

The ghetto was established in the autumn of 1940. It crammed the entire 400,000 person Jewish population of Warsaw, which was about 30% of the city’s population, into four square kilometres, which was roughly 3% of the city’s area.*****At that time, Irena Sendler was a 30-year-old social worker for the city. This bit of information was crucial to her work. Because she was a social worker (or had false papers stating she was a nurse, depending on what you read), she was able to pass freely in and out of the ghetto under the guise of health checks and delivering medication and vaccines to a population that was particularly susceptible to epidemics (overcrowding will do that) and illnesses related to being in close quarters with corpses (roughly 100,000 Jews starved to death). In December of 1942, Sendler was put in charge of the children’s division of the resistance movement. By that time, there were only around 55,000 Jews remaining in the ghetto.

Using her legal loophole to access the ghetto’s children, Sendler and about 30 collaborators, most of whom were women, managed to get 2500 children out of the ghetto and safely placed with gentile organizations, mostly churches, convents, and orphanages. By her own estimates, getting children from the ghetto to a safe location required no fewer than 12 people be in on the secret. (Hint: that’s a lot.) Not only did she do this, she kept a list of all of them in the hopes of reuniting them with their families after the war, despite the fact that if the list had ever been discovered, it would have meant immediate death (because that’s what the penalty was for giving aid to Jews). In fact, in October of 1943, Sendler was arrested by the Gestapo, who thought she was just a minor part of the conspiracy. She was tortured, though gave up no information, and sentenced to death, but a well-timed bribe allowed other members of the Żegota to secret her away in February of 1944. Her name was added to the list of those executed, and she spent the rest of the war continuing her work with the resistance under an assumed name.

After the war, Sendler retrieved the list — which a colleague hid in her underwear (or armpit, depending on what you read) to keep it from being discovered the night Sendler was arrested and then buried in a jar under an apple tree in a friend’s back yard — in the hopes of reuniting the children with their families. It should be unsurprising to learn that the vast majority of them had no surviving family members.

Irena Sendler was honoured by Yad Vashem as one of the first Righteous Among the Nations in 1965, though the government of Poland refused to let her collect the award until 1983. In 2003, she was awarded Poland’s highest civilian decoration, the Order of the White Eagle. In the end, Irena Sendler helped save more than twice as many people as Oskar Schindler…but she didn’t have a movie made of her life so she’s mostly overlooked. (To be clear, I’m not saying that Schindler was a slouch…saving people is good.) In fact, it seems her story had been mostly lost to archives in Jerusalem until 1999, when a bunch of schoolgirls in Kansas learned, in talking to some of the children she rescued, that she was still alive, went to Warsaw to speak with her and wrote a play about her, that her story gained outside renown.

All of this information can be found here and here. Also in her obituaries (she died in May of 2008) in: The New York Times, The Economist, The Guardian, The Telegraph, The LA Times. There are a slew more, but those five should give you a pretty good indication of what was being said about her at the time of her death. (Incidentally, the NY Times has the information about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising wrong; it took 28 days to quash, not the “more than a month” they state.)

*(six years ago and we’re all obviously still very bitter about it)

**Poland, you’ll remember was part of the Russian Empire.

***This was actually the most interesting part of this lesson for me; classrooms in Poland were segregated before the war. I imagine there wasn’t much need for that segregation after it considering the Nazis wiped out more than 90% of Polish Jews.

****Remember how I mentioned the other day that the number one reason for large-scale killing across all of history was land? This is a perfect example of how a land grab started a war.

*****You’ll get no sources for this because it’s information I know off the top of my head; Warsaw was the first revolution I studied.

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