The stray dog would not stop barking, but compared to the sounds of suffering from the 400,000 people on the other side of the gates, it was merely an annoyance. Those 400,000 people were imprisoned in a 16-block section of Warsaw called the “Warsaw Ghetto,” a community sealed off from the city and guarded by German Nazi soldiers. The dog was yipping at the tiny, pretty lady in her early 30s, and it barked at the guards unlocking the gates, allowing her out of the ghetto. Once she left, she would make a clandestine stop, then to a particular tree and a buried glass jar.
The guards knew the woman: her name was Jolanta, she wore a Star of David armband, and she had a pass from Warsaw’s Epidemic Control Department. At least 5,000 people were dying every month from starvation and disease inside the Warsaw Ghetto, and Jolanta was treating the people for typhus. Best to give a wide berth to this woman and the parcels, bags, and boxes she always carried.
What the soldiers didn’t know her real name was Irena Sendler (nee Krzyżanowski). She was also a member of the Polish underground resistance movement’s Zegota (the Council for Aid to Jews). Most importantly, inside those parcels, bags, and boxes were living Jewish children Irena was smuggling out of the ghetto. She was secretly thankful for the dog’s barking. It covered any noises from her living cargo. If the guards investigated, she and the child would be shot dead on the spot, their loved ones hunted down and murdered.
It was 1943 in German-occupied Poland. So many lives extinguished already. Irena only hoped her own life would be spared each time she passed those gates into the ghetto. Once inside, it was difficult to persuade families to trust her with their babies. The children would have to be sedated, she told them; once she got the children outside the ghetto, volunteers had false documents to provide new identities for them. The families demanded to know, “Can you guarantee they will live?'” Swallowing back tears, Irena would answer, “I can only guarantee they will die if they stay.” The families also worried about Irena’s safety: the death penalty would be given to anyone aiding Jewish persons, and that person’s entire household would be put to death. Poland was the only country in German-occupied Europe in which such a death penalty was applied. But Irena had learned from childhood: some ideals were worth the fight.
Irena was born in 1910 near Warsaw, Poland into a Catholic family. Her father Dr. Stanisław Krzyżanowski treated mostly Jewish patients who were destitute. He was one of the earliest members of the Polish Socialist Party; he died from typhus contracted from a patient. The large Jewish community offered to pay for little Irena’s education, but Irena’s mother, Janina, refused assistance. Irena went on to attend Warsaw University, which practiced segregation in lecture hall seating (Jewish university students were forced, under threat of expulsion, to sit in a designated section of the lecture halls, a practice called the “ghetto bench system”). Irena joined the Polish Socialist Party. The school suspended her when she defaced her grade card in protest of the ghetto bench system. She married and divorced, giving birth to several children. And she never forgot the advice her dear father gave her when she was only seven years old: “If you see someone drowning, you must jump in to save them, whether you can swim or not.”
Just before World War II, Irena moved to Warsaw and took a job as a Senior Administrator in the Warsaw Social Welfare Department. The organization created canteens in each district to provide meals, social services, and financial aid to the same communities her father treated: the elderly, orphans, and destitute persons.
Then it seemed to happen so quickly: Germany invaded Poland in 1939. First, there was discrimination and ostracizing. Next, the Warsaw Ghetto was sealed off in 1940. Zegota nominated Irena Sendler, known only as “Jolanta,” to head its Jewish children’s section. Irena enlisted the help of a few others and determined a plan. On the pretext of entering the Warsaw Ghetto to make necessary repairs and treat the sick, Irena and other volunteers smuggled out some babies and small children. The little ones would be given new identities and placed with religious organizations or Polish families. Zegota devised a variety of ways to smuggle out the children: suitcases, packages, potato sacks, coffins, and even toolboxes. Irena Sendler had to keep track of the children somehow so, one day, she could go back and inform the children of their past. Thus the “jar of names” was created.
Irena would use code to write down the child’s true name and their new identity on a slip of tissue paper. She would add information: where the child was sent, ages and birthdates, pieces of information that identified the child. Two thousand five hundred slips of paper would be buried in the jars. To keep the information safe, she buried the jar under a tree in a neighbor’s backyard. One day, she told each slip of paper, I will find you and tell you the story. Each time, she would glance across the street to a German barracks, directly across from this tree. To be caught with the jar would mean instant death for her and all who knew her.
In May 1943, the Warsaw Ghetto was destroyed and the survivors sent to death camps. On October 20, 1943, Irena Sendler was arrested. She was thrown into the Pawiak Prison. The Gestapo tortured her relentlessly, breaking her arms and legs. “Tell us!” They would demand over the sound of crunching bones. “Tell us about Zegota!” They ordered through her screams of pain. They smashed her feet to cripple her for life. She endured the fists, the kicks, starvation, and shock, but she never told them about Zegota, the smuggling operation, or the buried jar.
“I want to die,” she would whisper to herself; she would later say the torture and certain death was never as difficult as the stress she felt when smuggling the children. Yet she knew she must survive so she could later find those children.
She was saved from death in February 1944 when Zegota members bribed a Gestapo agent. On the way to the firing squad, she was knocked unconscious and tossed into the road. Irena would later read a poster announcing her death by firing squad. She continued her underground activities while in hiding. Because she was forced into hiding, she was unable to attend her mother’s funeral.
She kept her silent promise to all those children whose names were in the jar. After the war, she returned to the old neighborhood, locating the tree in the neighbor’s yard. Irena dug up the jar and used the notes. She located all 2,500 children, hoping to reunite them with surviving relatives now scattered across Europe. Most of the families had been murdered in Nazi death camps. She would sit down with each child, now in adulthood, to begin the story “I am Jolanta…”
For the remainder of her life, Irena Sendler would be plagued with nightmares: visions of the parents and children, cries of sadness and howls of terror. “Did I do enough?” She would wonder, tears coursing over her cheeks. “Could I have done more?” The memories and nightmares plagued her every night until her death in 2008. But her work might have been forgotten.
In 1999 a few teens from a small, rural Kansas high school learned of Irena’s story from a faded scrap of newspaper. The tiny bit of information turned into a school project. Their school project is now an international project called “Life in a Jar: The Irena Sendler Project.” In 2007 Irena was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize (she did not qualify due to committee rules). She insisted she was not a hero, giving credits to nameless others, and always believing she did not do enough.
Generations live on because of the 2,500 saved. The tree where the jar was buried remains standing.
THIS LIST OF LINKS IS NOT AN ALL-ENCOMPASSING SOURCE CITING. ALL OF THE INFORMATION USED IN THIS ARTICLE CAN BE EASILY FOUND ONLINE. LINKS BELOW WERE USED AS SOURCES AND ARE RECOMMENDED READING FOR SYNOVA’S READERS. SYNOVA STRIVES TO CITE ALL THE SOURCES USED DURING HER CASE STUDY, BUT OCCASIONALLY A SOURCE MAY BE MISSED BY MISTAKE. IT IS NOT INTENTIONAL AND NO COPYRIGHT INFRINGEMENT IS INTENDED.
For more information go to www.irenasendler.org
Life in a Jar: The Irena Sendler Project. Retrieved September 2016 from http://www.irenasendler.org
Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes, Ft. Scott, Kansas. https://lowellmilkencenter.org
The Holocaust – Crimes, Villains, & Heroes, Retrieved September 2016 from http://www.auschwitz.dk/sendler.htm
United States Holocaust Museum, Washington, D.C.
All photos are public domain
Sendler, circa 2005”
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J. A. Yates is an award-winning author and criminologist who has appeared as a guest speaker, lecturer, and instructor for organizations across the United States for almost 30 years, to include Dallas Area Paralegal Association, PFLAG (Parents, Families, & Friends of Lesbians & Gays), Texas Association of Licensed Investigators, Tennessee Correction Association, Federal Bureau of Prisons, and many more.
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