Monday, July 21, 2008

Polish Woman Irena Sendler Saved 2,500 Jewish Children During World War II

The story titled “Irena’s Children” by Gavriel Horan has been going around on the internet about 97-year-old Irena Sendler (she later died in Warsaw, Poland, on May 12, 2008, at the age of 98 from pneumonia).

From 1972 to 1978, as editor of Friday Forum – the monthly supplement of the Jewish Exponent, I published Holocaust survivors’ stories and stories of some of their rescuers.

Yet I had never heard of Irena Sendler and the incredible story of how she smuggled 2,500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto and found places to care for these children. And although she was eventually captured by the Nazis and tortured (leaving life-long injuries), she never gave up the names of her co-conspirators or revealed the whereabouts of any of the children.

For me – the most amazing part of a story with many amazing parts is Irena’s background:

Contrary to most Polish people who were Catholic and were taught to hate Jews, Irena had a father who was one of the first Polish Socialists and had raised his daughter to respect and love all people. In addition, he was a doctor and many of his patients were poor Jews.

When I read Horan’s description of her father, the lines from the song “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” from Rogers & Hammerstein’s musical SOUTH PACIFIC ran through my head:

You've got to be taught before it's too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You've got to be carefully taught

Irena’s father had done the exact opposite, and here is what Horan wrote about him:

When a typhus epidemic broke out in 1917, he was the only doctor who stayed in the area. He contracted the disease. His dying words to seven-year-old Irena were: “If you see someone drowning, you must jump in and try to save them, even if you don’t know how to swim.”

Horan’s story of Irena Sendler is so compelling that I urge you to read it for yourself at And there’s also a website with information at

May we all be inspired by this phenomenal woman, who Horan reports as saying: “I only did what was normal. I could have done more. This regret will follow me to my death.

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