IRENA SENDLER: WHY I SAVED 2500 CHILDREN
Irena Sendler, a Polish woman who saved 2,500 Jewish children during Holocaust died at the age of 92. May her memory be blessed.
Why did she do it? How did she do it? She explained:
The reason why I rescued children from the ghetto dates back to may family home and childhood. I was brought up to react that a person must be rescued when drowning, regardless of religion and nationality. A requirement dictated by the heart.
When war broke out I was a social care nurse in the Warsaw City Council's Health and Care Department. We looked after both Polish and Jewish poverty-stricken persons. Immediately on the German occupation of Warsaw a regulation was proclaimed depriving the Jewish population of all material aid. The situation deteriorated when the ghetto was closed on the 15.10.1941, after being opened in November 1940. That was when I recruited a group of my most trusted colleagues to rescue the most endangered people. By forging hundreds of documents in which Polish families were indicated under original Jewish names, we received money from Social Care, thereby saving at least a few from starvation.
We were given"passes" allowing entry to the Warsaw ghetto as functionaries of the Urban Sanitation Works. Its director Juliusz Majkowski, a person of great courage, entered my and my colleagues' names on the list of his workers.
I've opened contacts with"Centos" and other social organisations, with Dr. Wysznacka and Dr. Merkinówna - Prof. Witwicki's assistants.
It soon proved imperative to get children out on the so-called Aryan side since inside the ghetto it was hell.
We reached homes to say we could rescue children and lead them outside the ghetto walls. The basic question which then arose was: what guarantee could we give.
We had to admit honestly that we could give no guarantee since we did not even know whether we would succeed in leaving the ghetto today.
That was when we witnessed infernal scenes. Father agreed but mother didn't. Grandmother cuddled the child most tenderly and, weeping bitterly, said"I won't give away my grandchild at any price".
We sometimes had to leave such unfortunate families without taking their children from them. I went there the next day to see what the whole building had come to and often found that everyone had been taken to the Umschlagsplatz railway siding for transport to death camps.
Where were those rescued children sent to?
They had first to be placed with families we trusted the most to adapt the children to wholly changed conditions (family atmosphere and language - they often only spoke Yiddish). We called those homes"emergency care units". Those who did not know Polish had to be taught it, also basic prayers so as not to differ from Polish children when later taken to Social Care units.
Those kids quickly became accustomed to their new tutors, without understanding the extent of their tragedy, though they sometimes asked why they had been carried there away from"their kind miss" (i.e. the emergency care units). But it was toys which most often substituted their"kind miss"). They played, got up to all kinds of pranks and just felt good.
Children taken from the Emergency Care Units to private homes experienced their new lives in a quite different way. Those persons mainly took in small children. They were often childless families who longed to experience parenthood. After some time they become so attached to those children that, in many cases, they refused to give them back after the war. That apart, despite the fond care of their"adopted parents" those children also experienced bad moments, often locked in wardrobes for whole hours.
I know of cases when the sole chance of survival was the external window-sill, behind a curtain, keeping the child there as long as necessary, holding on with numb hands so as not to fall, until the Germans left the home of his adopted parents.
The children paid dear for the"price of life". A child sometimes had to be taken away from one"parents" and placed with others for their safety and that of the child.
I once carried such a tearful, broken-hearted little boy to other guardians when he asked me, crying and sobbing,"Please tell me how many Mums can you have, for this is the third one I'm going to".
In conditions of continuous danger from every part of the whole Polish environment, of frequent"visits" by Germans for various reasons, Jewish children had to be identical with Polish children. To allow them to return to a Jewish community some kind of a card file had to be kept, where against a name - Maria Kowalska for example - there was written"Regina Lubliner" - to allow the child to return home after the war.
For obvious reasons of conspiracy, the grandiloquently called" card file" was a roll of very narrow paper stripes. It was me and me alone who, for security reasons, kept and looked after this file.
A table stood in the middle of my room, with a window looking on partly on the house garden and partly on the backyard. So whenever I went to bed in the evening I placed that small paper roll on the middle of that table. I intended to throw the whole roll out of the window into the bushes in that house garden should anyone knock on my entry door. I frequently checked how effective my idea was so as to be well prepared to receive any"uninvited night guests".
Such a day did come on the 20.10.1943. There was a terrible banging on the front door which awoke my mother first and then let my head clear. I behaved just as I had trained through several years what to do should the Germans arrive. I grabbed that roll and wanted to throw it out of the window but could not, for the whole house was surrounded by Germans. So I threw it to my liasing colleague and went to open the door.
There were 11 soldiers. In two hours they almost tore the whole house apart, ripping up the floor, disembowelling pillows etc. The file was saved due to the great courage and intelligence of my liasing colleague who hid it in her underwear. I felt enormously, though paradoxically, happy when the Gestapo personnel let me dress for I knew they had not found the file of those children.
I cannot give a short description of what I experienced in the Gestapo cellars in Szucha Street and in Pawiak prison. The Pawiak museum contains a special cabinet with the instruments used by those"supermen" to torture prisoners. I still carry the marks on my body of what those"German supermen" did to me then. I was sentenced to death."The Żegota" [Relief Council for Jews, working under the auspices of the Home Army] the Jewish underground aid organisation smuggled messages to me that I am not to worry for it is doing everything possible to get me out. The whole leadership of Żegota liked me very much and had great respect for my work. They spared no effort to find a way to have my death sentence rescinded.
Apart from any sentiments, there was also anxiety that the only trace of those children would disappear should I die.
It is beyond description to tell what you feel when travelling to your own execution and, at the last moment, to find you had been bought out. A Gestapo officer had let me out for a large bribe. I figured in their documents as having been killed by firing squad. But after two months incorrect records were found in their registers. The Gestapo bribe-taker was sent to the eastern front and the Gestapo again visited me, but unsuccessfully for after leaving Pawiak illegally I had to change all my documents and also never to be found at home. I had to"steal" my dying mother from our home and take her to unknown persons until she ended her life several weeks later. The Gestapo was looking for me so obstinately that they were even at Mother's funeral asking which is the dead woman's daughter. Our friends replied"her daughter is in Pawiak prison". To which a Gestapo functionary replied furiously:"Sure she was but inexplicably no longer is". I continued working as the head of the children's section of"Żegota" though using entirely changed personal documents.
During the Warsaw Uprising I buried the"File" in two bottles in the garden of my liasing colleague, to ensure it would be given to a proper person even should I die. After the war in Poland ended, I delivered the matter of those children, i.e. the so-called"File", into the hands of Dr. Adolf Berman, the erstwhile first president of the Jewish Committee.
Using the addresses of children in the file, the Jewish Committee took back those children and delivered them to Orphan Homes organised in Poland or gradually sent them to erstwhile Palestine.
In conclusion let me stress most emphatically that we who were rescuing children are not some kind of heroes. Indeed, that term irritates me greatly.
The opposite is true - I continue to have qualms of conscience that I did so little.
It was my fervent wish to describe the subject of those children in great detail, to show the world the tragedy of the Jewish child, never encountered in the history of mankind down the centuries. But illness has overcome me and it will not be possible to tackle that task. So I appeal that perhaps"someone" will appear to take up the subject and display those"Heroes of Maternal Hearts", to give the contemporary world a better knowledge of the truth. And that truth should constitute a warning for the whole world, for all mankind.
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