Friday, May 16, 2008

Righteous Among the Nations

Poland paused this week to pay tribute to Irena Sendler -- a Catholic social worker who risked her life during World War II to smuggle 2,500 children from the Warsaw Ghetto, saving them from the ravages of the Holocaust.

Sendler died Monday at 98, and after a large crowd flocked to her funeral at a Warsaw church yesterday, Poland's Orthodox chief rabbi offered prayers at her graveside.
Yad Vashem chairman Avner Shalev said: "Irena Sendler's courageous activities rescuing Jews during the Holocaust serve as a beacon of light to the world, inspiring hope and restoring faith in the innate goodness of mankind."

Using her position as a social worker, Sendler regularly entered the ghetto, smuggling around 2,500 children out in boxes, suitcases or hidden in trolleys.

The children were then placed with Polish families outside the ghetto, created by Nazi Germany in 1940 for the city's half a million strong Jewish population, and given new identities.

But in 1943 Sendler, who led the children' section of the Zegota organisation which helped Jews during the war, was arrested and tortured by the Gestapo.

She only escaped execution when Zegota managed to bribe some Nazi officials, who left her unconscious but alive with broken legs and arms in the woods.

"People who stand up for others, for the weak, are very rare. The world would have been a better place if there were more of them," Marek Edelman, the last surviving commander of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, said on national television....

Sendler was honoured with Israeli Yad Vashem Righteous Among the Nations medal in 1965 for her actions, and later made an honorary Israeli citizen.

She was also nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize last year but, despite her bravery, she denied she was a hero.

"The term 'hero' irritates me greatly. The opposite is true. I continue to have pangs of conscience that I did so little," Sendler said in one of her last interviews.
...or as she put it in another interview, "Every child saved with my help is the justification of my existence on this Earth, and not a title to glory."

PHOTO: Reuters/Katarina Stoltz