compiled & edited by Daniel Hagadorn
With some notable exceptions, the Nobel Peace Prize has ceased to be a meaningful award–especially considering some of it’s winners and losers.
The winner of the Nobel Peace Prize will be announced on 8 October 2010 and has been awarded 90 times to 120 Nobel Laureates between 1901 and 2009—97 times to individuals and 23 times to organizations.
In 2007, the Nobel Peace Prize was jointly awarded to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and Albert A. Gore Jr. “for their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change.”
One of the other candidates in 2007 was Irena Sendler, whose story confirms that whatever prestige and honor the prize used to hold has long since vanished.
Excerpted from Harry de Quetteville, “ ‘Female Schindler’ Irene Sendler, who saved thousands of Jewish children, dies,” The Daily Telegraph (12 May 2008).
Irena Sendler was born Irena Krzyzanowska in Warsaw on 15 February 1910 into a Polish Roman Catholic family. Her father was a respected physician who operated a hospital in the suburb of Otwock where he frequently served impoverished Jews during an era of violent anti-Semitism. Even during several outbreaks of typhoid fever, he refused to turn away sick Jews and would later die of the disease when his daughter was only 9 years old. His example was of profound importance to Irena, who later said: “I was taught that if you see a person drowning, you must jump into the water to save them, whether you can swim or not.”
By 1942, the Nazis had forced over 500,000 Polish Jews into the ghetto—an area of about one square kilometre—to await transportation to the extermination camps. Starvation and disease, especially typhoid, were common.
When the war broke out, Sendler was a 29-year-old nurse in the Warsaw Welfare Department. In 1942, 280,000 Jews were deported from Warsaw to Treblinka and the Council for Aid of Jews (Zegota) was established to save the most endangered, using forged documents and planning intricate escapes. Irena Sendler quickly became one of their key activists. Children were sedated and smuggled out of the ghetto in bags and coffins while others crawled through the network of sewers to the outside world. Once outside the ghetto, they were safely hidden with friendly families and in Catholic monasteries and orphanages.
In December of 1942, Irena was appointed to lead the Zegota’s children’s department. Using the codename “Jolanta,” and wearing a Star of David armband to identify herself with the Jewish population, Sendler played a crucial role in the success of this escape network.
Wearing nurses’ uniforms, she and a colleague, Irena Schultz, were dispatched to the ghetto with food, clothing, and medicine, including a vaccine against typhoid. Sadly, it soon became evident that the ultimate destination awaiting many of these Jews would be the death camp at Treblinka. The Zegota responded by redoubling their efforts to save as many children as possible.
One of Sendler’s colleagues, a fellow Zegota member, was an ambulance driver who smuggled infants hidden beneath the stretchers in the back of his van. He always kept his dog beside him in the front seat, having trained the animal to bark to mask any cries from his hidden passengers.
Later, Irena Sendler recalled the heartbreak of Jewish mothers having to part from their children:
“We witnessed terrible scenes. Father agreed, but mother didn’t. We sometimes had to leave those unfortunate families without taking their children from them. I’d go back there the next day and often found that everyone had been taken to the Umschlagsplatz railway for transport to the death camps.”
The children fortunate enough to be smuggled out by Sendler were given new identities and those who were old enough to talk were taught Christian prayers and how to make the sign of the Cross, so that their Jewish heritage would not be suspected.
Like the more celebrated Oskar Schindler, Irena Sendler kept a list of the names of all the children she saved, in the hope that she could one day reunite them with their families.
Tragically, one of her colleagues gave up her name under torture and on the night of 20 October 1943, Irena Sendler’s house was raided by the Gestapo. Her immediate thought was to get rid of the list:
“I wanted to throw it out of the window but couldn’t, the whole house was surrounded by Germans. So I threw it to my colleague and went to open the door. There were 11 soldiers. In two hours they almost tore the whole house apart. The roll of names was saved due to the great courage and intelligence of my colleague, who hid it in her underwear.”
The Nazis took Irena Sendler to the Pawiak prison, where she was brutally tortured. Although her legs and feet were badly broken, and her body left permanently scarred, she refused to betray her network of rescuers or the children whom she had saved. Finally, she was sentenced to death.
Fortunately, one of Sendler’s friends at Zegota bribed a guard and she managed to escape to freedom. She immediately returned to her work under a new identity and after retrieving her list of names, she buried it in a jar beneath an apple tree in a friend’s garden.
The list contained the names of 2,500 children and true to her vow, following the end of World War II Sendler attempted to reunite the children with their families. Most of the parents, however, had been gassed at Treblinka.
After the war Irena Sendler continued in social work and was later promoted to director of vocational schools. In 1965, she became one of the first Righteous Gentiles to be honored by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem. However, the Communist leadership in Poland would not allow her to travel to Israel, and she was unable to collect the award until 1983.
In her later years Irena Sendler was confined to a Warsaw nursing home and cared for by Elzbieta Ficowska, who—in July of 1942, at six months old—had been smuggled out of the ghetto by Irena in a carpenter’s toolbox. In 2003, she was awarded Poland’s highest honor, the Order of the White Eagle; and in 2007 she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Irena Sendler, died 12 May 2008, at the age of 98 and is credited with having saved the lives of over 2,500 Jewish children in the Warsaw ghetto during the Second World War.
In 2005 Irena Sendler reflected:
“We who were rescuing children are not some kind of heroes. That term irritates me greatly. The opposite is true—I continue to have qualms of conscience that I did so little. I could have done more. This regret will follow me to my death. Every child saved with my help is the justification of my existence on this Earth, and not a title to glory.”