Normally a story this old wouldn’t inspire me to write about it with an election coming up so soon, but this is simply too powerful.
Last year, a woman you probably never heard of by the name of Irena Sendler passed away. She was reportedly nominated for a Nobel Prize to honor her personal sacrifice in rescuing about three thousand people from the Warsaw Ghetto under the Nazi occupation, mostly young children and infants. Her obituary from the Los Angeles Times is one of the most amazing stories I have ever read. If this doesn’t qualify someone to receive a Nobel Prize, I can’t imagine that any mortal human could.
She studied at Warsaw University and was a social worker in Warsaw when the German occupation of Poland began in 1939. In 1940, after the Nazis herded Jews into the ghetto and built a wall separating it from the rest of the city, disease, especially typhoid, ran rampant. Social workers were not allowed inside the ghetto, but Sendler, imagining “the horror of life behind the walls,” obtained fake identification and passed herself off as a nurse, allowed to bring in food, clothes and medicine.
By 1942, when the deadly intentions of the Nazis had become clear, Sendler joined a Polish underground organization, Zegota. She recruited 10 close friends — a group that would eventually grow to 25, all but one of them women — and began rescuing Jewish children.
She and her friends smuggled the children out in boxes, suitcases, sacks and coffins, sedating babies to quiet their cries. Some were spirited away through a network of basements and secret passages. Operations were timed to the second. One of Sendler’s children told of waiting by a gate in darkness as a German soldier patrolled nearby. When the soldier passed, the boy counted to 30, then made a mad dash to the middle of the street, where a manhole cover opened and he was taken down into the sewers and eventually to safety.
Most of the children who left with Sendler’s group were taken into Roman Catholic convents, orphanages and homes and given non-Jewish aliases. Sendler recorded their true names on thin rolls of paper in the hope that she could reunite them with their families later. She preserved the precious scraps in jars and buried them in a friend’s garden.
In 1943, she was captured by the Nazis and tortured but refused to tell her captors who her co-conspirators were or where the bottles were buried. She also resisted in other ways. According to Felt, when Sendler worked in the prison laundry, she and her co-workers made holes in the German soldiers’ underwear. When the officers discovered what they had done, they lined up all the women and shot every other one. It was just one of many close calls for Sendler.
During one particularly brutal torture session, her captors broke her feet and legs, and she passed out. When she awoke, a Gestapo officer told her he had accepted a bribe from her comrades in the resistance to help her escape. The officer added her name to a list of executed prisoners. Sendler went into hiding but continued her rescue efforts.
Felt said that Sendler had begun her rescue operation before she joined the organized resistance and helped a number of adults escape, including the man she later married. “We think she saved about 500 people before she joined Zegota,” Felt said, which would mean that Sendler ultimately helped rescue about 3,000 Polish Jews.
When the war ended, Sendler unearthed the jars and began trying to return the children to their families. For the vast majority, there was no family left. Many of the children were adopted by Polish families; others were sent to Israel.
Amazingly, she was not awarded the Nobel Prize for these absolutely stunning acts of self-sacrifice, bravery, and love for humanity that rescued thousands of innocent people from certain death. The prize committee thought someone else was more deserving, someone else had done more and sacrificed more, and was even more worthy of honor and recognition than this incredible heroine. Just who could that have possibly been, you wonder?
Instead of honoring Irena Sendler, the 2007 Nobel Prize was awarded jointly to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and former Vice-President Al Gore for “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.”
You just can’t make stuff like this up, because no one would ever believe it.
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