JANKA ZGRZEMBSKA, DAUGHTER OF IRENA SENDLER, APRIL 2, 2007
Though better recognized in recent years, the name Irena Sendler is still mostly unknown, even to students of the Holocaust. Blame it on Steven Spielberg?
After all, Oscar Schindler, the German industrialist, became synonymous with humanity amid the horrors of the Holocaust; his efforts to save more than one thousand Jewish workers from certain death was immortalized in Spielberg’s 1993 blockbuster Schindler’s List.
Sendler’s list was more than twice a long.
Irena Sendler was a Catholic social worker as well as an activist in the Polish Underground and the Polish anti-Holocaust resistance in Warsaw; working for the city's Social Welfare Department she had a special permit to enter the Warsaw ghetto. Once inside, she managed to convince Jewish parents that they were doomed once the ghetto was evacuated, and persuaded many of them to give up their children to her care. Whereupon, she smuggled them out using various artifices, including body bags and secreted tunnels and adopting them into Polish homes, convents and orphanages. She provided them false documents denying their Jewish heritage and kept lists of both identities in jars buried in a garden, telling their parents that if they were to somehow survive the war, this was to be their method of locating their children.
How many children did Sendler save? Most histories agree on a figure of 2500.
Now, perhaps the most remarkable part of the story? Irena Sendler is still alive.
At ninety-seven, she is bedridden and unable to submit to interviews, but her daughter Janka Zgrzembska was more than happy to meet with us in her cramped apartment and share memories of her mother and more of the remarkable heroism in the face of certain and ultimate punishment were her efforts discovered. And, in fact, Janka told us with scarcely masked emotion, in 1943, her mother was arrested by the Gestapo, and severely tortured. Refusing to devulge either her secrets or those of the Polish Underground she was sentenced to death, saved only by Zegota (The Council To Aid Jews) who bribed the German guards taking her to execution.
Janka herself is now a book editor, and, working out of a communist era utility aparment in Warsaw, sits surrounded by Garfield dolls, children’s art and numerous encyclopedia.
With Irena Sendler a potential candidate for a Nobel prize, it can be hoped that more of these encyclopedias will one day share the story of her remarkable heroism in the face of impossible odds.