Remembering Irena Sendler: A Humble Heroine
ANDREA SEABROOK, host:
If not for the courage of Irena Sendler, 2,500 Jewish children might never have survived World War II. Irena Sendler, who died last week in Poland, was a Polish Catholic social worker who smuggled those kids out of the Warsaw ghetto. NPR's Guy Raz met her back in 2000 at a retirement home outside Warsaw, and he filed this appreciation.
GUY RAZ: Irena Sendler would have fiercely rejected the idea that her death might be newsworthy. In fact, she'd be embarrassed by the attention. She said as much eight years ago when I went to meet Irena with my Polish translator, a women named Pia Ruzinech(ph).
Ms. IRENA SENDLER (Late Social Worker): (Through translator) She kept saying that she's extremely moved by your visit and that she really has done nothing to earn it.
RAZ: The sanatorium where she lived on the outskirts of Warsaw was built in the 1920s. It smelled of disinfectant. At that time, Irena Sendler was already in bad health but still fiercely lucid. She was a tiny little thing, barely five feet and yet a towering person. A Polish Catholic who could have kept to herself quietly out of the way, away from the German soldiers who occupied the city after 1939.
But she was drawn to the Jewish ghetto. Nearly half a million Jews were forced to live there, at the time the most densely populated place on Earth.
Ms. SENDLER: (Through translator) I started going to the ghetto to check up on some friends. I had a pastor come and go because I was a social worker. I'd bring them food and jam, sometimes meat or sugar. The more I went, the more I'd see people I knew and they were suffering terribly.
RAZ: By 1942 the Nazis began to systematically deport Poland's Jews to death camps. Irena Sendler joined a Polish resistance movement called Zegota. She decided she'd try to smuggle as many children out from the ghetto as possible.
Ms. SENDLER: (Through translator) I used my connections to find out which houses the Nazis would target the next morning. The night before, I'd visit with the parents and try and convince them that I could save their children. Some of the parents trusted me and others didn't.
RAZ: The children of the parents who did trust her were hidden with sympathetic Polish families and in convents. Sendler gave them all non-Jewish names to conceal their identities from the Germans. But she wanted to make sure the kids would know who they really were after the war, so she wrote as many details as she knew about each child on a piece of paper. She put the paper inside a glass jar and bury in a garden near her home.
Over two years, she buried more than 2,000 bottles. The story was largely forgotten until a group of high school students from Kansas rediscovered it about a decade ago. They wrote a play about Sendler's life and performed it here at NPR in 2000.
Unidentified Woman: Irena, what are you doing? Are you mad? You can't leave any evidence for the Nazis to find. You will get caught. You will get caught.
RAZ: The students, Megan Stewart, Elizabeth Cambers, Sabrina Coons and Janine Underwood, performed the play across the country. They raised thousands of dollars to help pay Irena Sendler's medical bills. By then Irena had already been honored by the Polish government and by the state of Israel. She'd managed to help transport many of the children she saved to Israel.
Ms. SENDLER: (Through translator) After the war, I dug out the jars from the garden and I took them to the head of the Jewish organization in Warsaw. He then got in touch with people in Israel who helped bring the children there.
RAZ: The Polish Senate nominated Irena Sendler for the Nobel Peace Prize last year. They held a celebration in her honor but she was too frail to attend, so she sent letter, once again, asking why so much fuss over a simple old lady.
Guy Raz, NPR News.
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SEABROOK: You'll hear a lot from Guy over the next two weekends. He'll be hosting the show while I take some time off.