Today’s America seems to be dominated by the word "me". There is a continual barrage of complaints from those who aren’t getting everything they think they deserve. At the same time, there is a never-ending list of stories about folks who feel no remorse about cheating others to benefit themselves.
The idea of caring for and about someone other than the person we see in the mirror seems to be rapidly disappearing from our culture.
And many of us, who are trying to hold on to the ideals of honesty and fairness and compassion, too often feel like we are fighting a losing battle. The temptation to just give up can be overwhelming.
We are not the first people in history to face such temptations. So perhaps remembering the life of one who did not give in will give us the inspiration to continue our own work.
Her name was Irena Sendler. She was born in 1910, in Poland.
She was a social worker when the Nazis invaded Poland.
When the Jews were rounded up into the Warsaw Ghetto, Irena joined the Polish underground sponsored movement, Zegota (Council to Aid the Jews), and became the head of its division on children.
She obtained a pass from the Nazi Epidemic Control Department so she could enter the Ghetto. Seeing the starvation conditions and knowing that death was the final outcome for Ghetto residents, she began smuggling the children out. She hid them in toolboxes, potato sacks, gunny sacks, even coffins.
The church was an active assistant. One church had two doors, one on the Ghetto side and the other on the "Aryan" side. The children entered the church as Jews and exited as Christians, with false documents. Sendler reported that she sent most of the children to religious establishments because she knew that she could count on the sisters.
The children were given false identities and placed in adoptive homes, orphanages, and convents. Irena later stated that no one had ever refused to take a child from her. Even though, in Poland, anyone found aiding a Jew would be executed with his entire family.
Irena noted the children’s original names and their new identities, and buried the records in jars beneath an apple tree in a neighbor’s back yard, across the street from German barracks. She hoped that she could someday dig up the jars, locate the children and inform them of their past.
In all, the jars contained the names of 2,500 children.
In 1943 Irena was arrested, imprisoned and tortured by the Gestapo, who broke her feet and legs. In spite of the torture, Irena did not betray the identities of any of the adoptive families, her associates, or the Jewish children.
She was sentenced to death, but escaped and lived in hiding for the rest of the war.
After the war she dug up the jars and tried to reunite the children she had placed with their natural relatives. Sadly, most of the Jewish families had perished during the Holocaust.
Irena’s story was unnoticed until the year 2000, when four high school students in Kansas wrote about her as part of a history project.
She did not think of herself as a hero. The 2500 children she saved and the generations that will follow them would disagree.
And as for us, how can we read of a story like Irena’s and even THINK about quitting?