Meet the female Oskar Schindler





Re: The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler, the television movie airing on Sunday on CBS.

Oskar Schindler’s yellowed, handwritten list of Jews was found last week in Australia, nestled among the papers of author Thomas Kenneally. It made the international news because everyone has heard of “Schindler’s list,” thanks to the Oscar-winning movie. But how many have heard of “Sendler’s list”?

On April 19, America will meet “the female Oskar Schindler”—the woman who smuggled 2,500 Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto, saving them from almost certain death in Treblinka. Thousands of children perished inside the Warsaw Ghetto; all but one of Sendler’s survived the war.

The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler, the glossy CBS television biopic with Anna Paquin in the title role, will showcase the singularity of Sendler, nominated for the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize the year before she died at 98 (Al Gore won instead). Fortunately, it also spotlights the team that worked with her, the women of Zegota.

Last summer over a dinner in Kraków, I had a chance to experience firsthand the remarkable effect of Sendler’s courage on Holocaust survivor Lili Pohlmann, a close friend who knew Sendler during the years when she had been totally forgotten by Poland and the world. Sendler makes us reconsider our notions of heroism.

Sendler was an ordinary woman who refused to abandon her prewar principles as good people became increasingly brutal. She had confided to Pohlmann, “I could have done more. This regret will burden me to my dying day.”

As her fame grew in the last few years of her life, Sendler constantly credited her unheralded co-conspirators. For each baby smuggled from the crowded and diseased ghetto, ten Poles risked their lives. After Sendler persuaded anguished Jewish families to part with their children, the team transported them in crates, potato bags, coffins, toolboxes and suitcases, often drugging them with barbiturate Luminal for a silent passage. The women got faux baptismal certificates and documentation, provided medical help and found safe places in shelters, convents or with foster families. “Sendler’s List” were the names of children’s new and old identities on bits of paper hidden in jars, with the hope that families could be reunited later. “Can you guarantee they will live?” Jewish mothers and fathers asked her. Of course, Sendler could not guarantee that they would even be able to leave the ghetto undetected. Sendler told Pohlmann, “In my dreams I still hear the cries when they were leaving their parents.”

Sendler knew that one good act inspires another: For the unprepossessing Polish Catholic worker, it began with her father, a doctor, who taught her, “If you see someone drowning, you go and help—even if you don’t know how to swim.” He died of typhus contracted from the Jews other doctors refused to visit. Sendler was only seven; but his lessons lingered.

Moral authority doesn’t travel in herds, but heroism usually requires a network—or it creates one. As her father had inspired her, Sendler inspired a network of women within Zegota, a clandestine wartime organization to aid the Jews, operating under the auspices of Poland’s government-in-exile.

In Poland, the penalty was the cruelest anywhere in Europe: death for helping Jews in any way—for the entire family, and sometimes neighbors as well. Perhaps inevitably, Sendler herself was eventually betrayed. After Gestapo interrogation and torture, a laundrywoman at a pick-up point gave Sendler’s name. Sendler never blamed her for the months Warsaw’s notorious Pawiak Prison, where she too was tortured as the Gestapo demanded that she turn over names of bigwig insurgents; they never learned of the existence of Żegota, and they certainly learned nothing from Sendler. She escaped en route to her execution. But Soviet victory did not bring peace: she was regularly interrogated and otherwise persecuted as a Polish patriot.

In The Lucifer Effect, Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo writes of Christians who helped Jews during the Holocaust: “What is striking over and over again is the number of these rescuers who did the right thing without considering themselves heroic, who acted merely out of a sense of common decency. The ordinariness of their goodness is especially striking in the context of the incredible evil of the systematic genocide by Nazis on a scale the world had never before experienced.”

The women of Zegota lived with danger as their daily bread—a diet not to be underestimated until you have tried it. Though they formed a network, their work was necessarily secretive and isolating, characterized by grinding anxiety as they scrounged for extra rations on the black market and second-guessed the trustworthiness of peripheral participants. Goodness is always a step away from the herd—but even with allies, confronting evil is a risky, terrifying business.

They also knew in their bones that civilization is not merely the stuff of books and buildings—in the end, it comes down to the man who will share his last crust of bread with another. It’s something to consider: What would it be like to live as if our first priority wasn’t our own safety—especially in these rocky economic times? What choices would we make if we didn’t care whether others approved of us, or liked us, or ever understood us? What would we say if we didn’t care that we might be wrong?

The no-expense-spared CBS film will undoubtedly raise Sendler’s profile in the West. Others have been working toward the same end with fewer resources and far less publicity. Bay Area filmmaker Mary Skinner is finishing a documentary of Sendler planned for release later this year: In the Name of Their Mothers: The Story of Irena Sendler (footage from her documentary has been used for the CBS movie).

Skinner, who knew Sendler in the years prior to her death, told me: “Once you have an encounter with someone like Irena Sendler you can never be afraid again, or let your fear interfere with your will to do good, or your will to oppose something you believe to be wrong. You understand what’s possible, and what price people paid.”

“Fear overcame a lot of well-intentioned people in that situation. It’s fear that overcomes us now.”

Certainly we don’t live in a Holocaust, but there’s no shortage of opportunities for creating a contagion of goodness in tough times. Research suggests that role models can encourage people to give generously, help strangers, or manage aggression. But the preliminary self-examination starts on a scale of one.



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