From The Economist print edition
Irena Sendler, saviour of children in the Warsaw ghetto, died on May 12th, aged 98
POLAND suffered more than any other European country during the second world war. And there was an extra twist: the history of that suffering was then systematically distorted by the Soviet-imposed Communist rulers, and widely misunderstood abroad. Auschwitz, for example, is still often referred to as a ”Polish death camp”—rather than one run by the country’s Nazi occupiers, in which huge numbers of Polish citizens perished. And gentile Poles are typically imagined to have rejoiced, collaborated or simply stood by as their Jewish compatriots were exterminated. Poles, said the former Israeli leader Yitzhak Shamir, ”imbibe anti-Semitism with their mother’s milk.”
Certainly prejudice was prevalent in pre-war Poland; but many Poles defied it. One of the bravest was Irena Sendler. As a doctor’s daughter, she had been brought up in a house that was open to anyone in pain or need, Jew or gentile. In the segregated lecture halls at Warsaw University, where she studied Polish literature, she and likeminded friends deliberately sat on the ”Jewish” benches. When nationalist thugs beat up a Jewish friend, she defaced her grade card, crossing out the stamp that allowed her to sit on the ”Aryan” seats. For that, the university suspended her for three years. All this was good preparation for the defiance she was to show after 1939, when the Germans invaded.
She was, a friend said, ”born to selflessness, not called to it”. Certainly she had good genes. A rebellious great-grandfather was deported to Siberia. Her father died of typhus in 1917, after treating patients his colleagues shunned. Many were Jewish. Leaders of the Jewish community offered money to her hard-up mother for young Irena’s education. Like many social workers in pre-war Poland, Mrs Sendler belonged to the Socialist party: not for its political ideology, she said, but because it combined compassion with dislike of money-worship. No religion motivated her: she acted z potrzeby serca, ”from the need of my heart”.
Under Nazi occupation the Jews of Warsaw were herded into the city ghetto: four square kilometres for around 400,000 souls. Even before the deportations to the Treblinka death camp started, death could be arbitrary and instant. Yet a paradox created a sliver of hope. Squalor and near-starvation (the monthly bread ration was two kilos, or 4.5lb) created ideal conditions for typhus, which would have killed Germans too. So the Nazis allowed Mrs Sendler and her colleagues in and out of the tightly guarded ghetto to distribute medicines and vaccinations.
That bureaucratic loophole allowed her to save more Jews than the far better known Oscar Schindler. It was astonishingly risky. Some children could be smuggled out in lorries, or in trams supposedly returning empty to the depot. More often they went by secret passageways from buildings on the outskirts of the ghetto. To save one Jew, she reckoned, required 12 outsiders working in total secrecy: drivers for the vehicles; priests to issue false baptism certificates; bureaucrats to provide ration cards; and most of all, families or religious orders to care for them. The penalty for helping Jews was instant execution.
Names in glass jars
To make matters even riskier, Mrs Sendler insisted on recording the children’s details to help them trace their families later. These were written on pieces of tissue paper bundled on her bedside table; the plan was to hurl them out of the window if the Gestapo called. The Nazis did catch her (thinking she was a small cog, not the linchpin of the rescue scheme) but did not find the files, secreted in a friend’s armpit. Under torture she revealed nothing. Thanks to a well-placed bribe, she escaped execution; the children’s files were buried in glass jars. Mrs Sendler spent the rest of the war under an assumed name.
The idea of a heroine’s treatment appalled her. ”I feel guilty to this day that I didn’t do more,” she said. Besides, she felt she had been a bad daughter, risking her elderly mother’s life with her wartime work, a bad wife to both her husbands, and a neglectful mother. Her daughter once asked to be admitted to the children’s home where her mother worked after the war, in order to see more of her.
Mrs Sendler need not have worried. Far from being honoured, she narrowly avoided a death sentence from the Communist authorities. Her crime was that her work had been authorised and financed by the Polish government-in-exile in London; later, she helped soldiers of the Home Army, the wartime resistance. Both outfits were now reviled as imperialist stooges. In 1948 repeated interrogations by the secret police in late pregnancy cost the life of her second child, born prematurely. She was not allowed to travel, and her children could not study full-time at university. ”What sins have you got on your conscience, Mama?” her daughter asked her.
It was not until 1983 that the Polish authorities allowed her to travel to Jerusalem, where a tree was planted in her honour at Yad Vashem. Many of the children she had saved sought her out: now elderly themselves, all grateful, but some still yearning for details of their forgotten parents. In 2003 she received Poland’s highest honour, the order of the White Eagle. It came a little late.