This year, time has really been whizzing by, and so it happened that Holocaust Memorial Day came and went and I didn't dedicate a post to it, although I very much wanted to. Now I would like to take the opportunity to share with you all a bit about the unique destiny of a heroic woman I only recently discovered.
Irena Sendler was born in Poland in the year 1910 under the name of Irena Krzyżanowska. There is a page dedicated to her on Lowell Milken Center, a website that specializes in "celebrating unsung heroes who change the world", and you can also read about her on Wikipedia. She was a young woman when the Nazis rose to power; and while all around Europe the evil was either hushed up, rationalized or condoned, Irena found it in herself not only to recognize it, but also to stand up to it, saving countless lives.
During the years 1942-43 Irena, using various methods which show her ingenuity and bravery, managed to smuggle around 2,500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw ghetto. I get goosebumps just thinking of what kind of a fearless spirit one must have in order to accomplish something like this. Irena, along with the help of others, gave the children false identities, hid them in foster families, convents or orphanages, and made lists of the children's real names. The lists she put in jars and buried them in a garden, optimistically believing that some day, the evil rulers would be vanquished and the Jewish children she saved would be able to proudly wear their real names again.
Irena Sendler was, ultimately, captured by the Nazis, tortured and sentenced to death, but with the help of friends managed to escape and spent the rest of the war in hiding. Despite the great danger – if she was caught again, no doubt she would be facing instant execution - she did not discontinue her work among the Jewish children. In 1965, she was recognized by Yad Va-Shem, the Israeli Holocaust Museum, as a "Righteous among the Nations", a title of great praise.
Our sages say, "he who saves one man, saves an entire world". Consider, then, how many worlds Irena Sendler saved – not only the 2,500 Jewish children, but also their children and grandchildren and all the generations to come. Not to mention that she gave the world an extraordinary example which is an inspiration to us all to reach out, in any little way we can, and do good. She was rewarded by being able to see how her work bears fruit, and no doubt she rejoiced to know that the children grow up and build lives and families of their own.
These words now come to my mind: "If this city has even ten righteous men, it will not be destroyed". Jews have lived in Poland, and the rest of Europe, for many centuries. They had a vibrant culture and flourishing communities. They contributed in the way of literature, architecture, economy, science. No country had ever seen anything but good from its Jewish community – and yet in the midst of the cultured, well-educated, humanistic 20-th century, a totalitarian regime rose which wiped it all out in just some short years. And only a few had the courage and spirit to actively resist. Those few, in my opinion, are the "ten righteous men" (and women, of course) thanks to whom G-d did not make Europe go up in flames. The countries where the evil deeds happened live on, and so does our memory of what happened.
It is so very, very important that it does not fade away. There are still Holocaust survivors living, but there are fewer each year. And there is our generation – some of us knew in person Holocaust survivors or war heroes, so we will never doubt their words... but we, too, will pass away some day, and so the personal element of connection with this great tragedy will be lost. Already some are denying the Holocaust – and if I could, and if I weren't Jewish and didn't know any Jews, perhaps I would be tempted to deny it too, because it is too horrible to contemplate the idea of one nation systematically destroying another, men, women, children, the elderly, the infants. And there Divine command comes to instruct us: "Remember what Amalek did to you". Because only then you will be able to strike in time, and stand up to Amalek again and again.
Irena Sendler died in 2008, at the age of 98. May her life and legacy never be forgotten.
You can visit the Lowell Milken Center page to read about more little-known heroes of blessed memory.