The Extraordinary Story of Irena Sendler: Irena’s Children by Tilar J. Mazzeo: a Book Review

irena sendler

Like most of you, I have read about righteous gentiles who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. Invariably, their stories are told from the Jewish vantage point. I want to take you on a journey back into that horrible time to see the things through the eyes of decent Polish gentiles. You will glimpse a story very different from the ones we are more familiar with.

Irena Sendler was a Polish woman who saved children from the Warsaw ghetto. Moreover, unlike the righteous gentiles we are used to hearing about, who acted alone, she was part of a large network of gentiles who risked their lives and saved more Jews than Schindler or other, more famous, people. Together with her friends and coworkers, Irena smuggled infants out of the Warsaw ghetto in suitcases and wooden boxes, past German guards and Jewish police traitors. She brought out toddlers and schoolchildren through the city’s foul and dangerous sewers. She worked with Jewish teenagers, many of them girls of 14 or 15, who fought bravely and died in the ghetto uprising.

Before she was caught and tortured by the Gestapo (saved from certain death by a massive bribe given by the Polish underground to a Nazi), Irena saved over 2,500 children, all of whose true identities she recorded so that she could return them after the war. She could not have known that over 90 percent of their families would perish in Treblinka. She could also not have guessed that she, a leftwing radical and lifelong socialist, would be persecuted by the post-war Communists and that her own children would be discriminated against for admission to university or for jobs because of their mother’s wartime actions. In this review, I will explain why Irena’s story came out only many years after the war. I will also let you in on the tragedy of the whole sorry saga – how it happened that, despite Irena’s efforts to keep accurate lists, at great risk to herself, most of Irena’s children were not reunited with their families or with the Jewish people.

I want to emphasize that Irena was a complicated person, like all human beings, and to call her a saint would be a dishonor to the complexity and difficulty of her truly human choices. We will see some of this as we learn her story. Let us begin.

Kindness Is All

Irena’s father Dr. Stanislaw Krzyzanowski, lived and practiced medicine in Otwock. Most Polish doctors refused to treat poor Jews who could not afford the fee. Her father, though, was a goodhearted man, who did not turn away poor patients. Since Otwock was 50 percent Jewish, he became very popular. Irena made friends and played with many Jewish children growing up. Tragically, her father died during an epidemic of typhoid fever in 1917. Irena’s mother struggled and could no longer afford the fees to send her daughter to school.

When the family’s plight became known in Otwock, a delegation of the Jewish community came to her home. “Pani Krzyzanowsha,” they said, “we will pay for the education of your daughter.” Pani was the Polish word for a lady. As her young daughter watched, “Mother dabbed her eyes. ‘No, no,’ she said firmly. ‘I thank you very much, but I am young, I will support my daughter.’” The family moved to a small town where Irena’s mother’s family lived, Piotrow Trybunalski, not far from Warsaw.

Perhaps Irena’s desire to help Jews survive the Nazis had something to do with this kiddush Hashem that occurred long before in Otwock. Skipping ahead, Irena decided to go for a graduate certificate in social welfare at the University of Warsaw. She also signed up for a community internship across town sponsored by the Polish Free University. That is where Irena met and became a lifelong follower of Professor Helena Radlinska, a Jewish-born woman in her early sixties, who had long since converted to Catholicism. She was a pioneer in the field of social work in Poland. Irena devoted all of her energies to her new career and her new job providing help for the city’s unwed mothers.

The Bench Ghetto

In 1935, in Polish universities, Jews were made to sit separately from “Aryan” Poles. Anti-Semitism was open and normal. Poland was an openly anti-Semitic country, whose government and people did not like Jews and sought to limit their influence on the economy. The far-right ultra-nationalists had violent tactics and racist rhetoric. These anti-Semites proudly wore green ribbons to show their affiliation. Irena once said, “The years at the university were very hard and very sad. A rule was established segregating the Catholics from the Jewish students. The Catholics were to sit on the chairs on the right and the Jews on the chairs to the left. I always sat with Jews and therefore I was beaten by anti-Semites together with Jewish students.”

At the University of Warsaw, the majority of the students tacitly supported this discrimination against Jewish students. Across town, at the Polish Free University, however, things were different. When the ultra-nationalist thugs came to assault the Jewish students, the entire campus rallied and drove them off with fire hoses. Irena’s new friends from Dr. Radlinska’s circle included many Jews, although as left-wing activists, religion didn’t much interest any of them.

In 1939, World War II broke out. Warsaw was a city of one million inhabitants, and one third of the populace was Jewish. The Poles considered Warsaw to be dynamic and modern. The Germans, however, considered the Poles, part of the Slavic race, to be inferior to Aryans and ominously classified Poles along with their Jewish neighbors as “untermenschen” or sub-humans. The Nazis’ goal included the complete annihilation of Polish culture, and the first order of business was killing off the country’s intellectuals.

The book continues, “Intellectuals included not just professors but also the country’s doctors, teachers, lawyers, judges, journalists, aristocrats, social workers, politicians, priests, nuns, communists, and scientists. Hitler gave instructions to kill off all people of influence, shutter the universities, and burn the libraries. Hitler is quoted as saying, ‘The sole goal of their schooling is to teach them simple arithmetic, nothing above the number 500; writing one’s name and the doctrine that it is divine law to obey the Germans. I do not think that reading is desirable.’”

In the first year, the eradication of the Jewish nation within a nation grew progressively more onerous. Synagogues were ordered closed. Jews could not send letters overseas, use telephones or trains, walk in the city’s parks, or sit on municipal benches. By the beginning of 1941, young Polish ruffians prowled the streets of Warsaw in broad daylight, viciously beating anyone with the Star of David armband. Most Poles looked the other way.

In the first weeks of Spring, 1941, a dangerous typhus epidemic was taking hold in the most impoverished residential districts that, unsurprisingly were Jewish. Word was spreading across Warsaw of plans to establish a Jewish quarter to quarantine “infected areas.” The establishment of the ghetto forced Poles to move out of that area and Jews to move into a confining section. The result was 350,000 Jews moving into an area designed for 80,000 inhabitants.

The Real Ghetto

Irena’s rescue work began simply enough. Jews could not get welfare, so she and her colleagues falsified papers so these families would be listed as Poles. As the ghetto was going up, some Jews sought Aryan papers, but many felt more secure in the Jewish ghetto away from anti-Semitic Poles and Germans. They had no idea what was coming. On November 16, 1940, Jews walking to clandestine Shabbos services were astounded to learn that, overnight, the ghetto had been sealed entirely. No one had seen this coming. Jews were forbidden to leave the closed area, ostensibly to stop the recurrence of the communicable diseases for which they were blamed, in ugly racist posters that went up around the city. Jews were allotted a daily food ration that was not sufficient to sustain life.

Irena and her friends from Dr. Radlinska’s circle were social workers. Their involvement in saving Jews came from their ability to deal with communicable diseases. Irena’s Jewish friend, Ala, was the chief nurse in the ghetto, an official appointment by the Judenrat. The position allowed her a rare ghetto pass and the right to make professional visits on the streets of the Jewish quarter after curfew. Irena, as a worker in the Department of Health and Social Services, also had a pass to enter the ghetto.

A Polish physician, Dr. Juliusz Majkowski, had made the ghetto passes possible. He was also a part of Dr. Radlinska’s circle from the Polish Free University and, conveniently, he was in charge of the Urban Sanitation Works of the Warsaw municipality. He was responsible for combating the spread of epidemic diseases beyond the ghetto. He added the names of Irena and three of her friends, Irka, Jadwiga, and Jaga, to the list of authorized health workers able to enter the ghetto. The Germans were terrified of being infected, so they left the job of health and sanitation to more “dispensable” Polish people. The papers were perfectly legal, even if the sanitation job was a fiction.

Conditions in the ghetto were horrible. Irena had to step over the dead bodies of children whenever she walked in the ghetto. Irena’s Jewish friends inside the ghetto were all idealistic young people and they organized various means to help sustain life and health, a losing proposition. Irena smuggled in medicine, money and whatever she could, even though the penalty for helping a Jew was summary execution on the spot.

Saving a Jewish Child

One day, Irena’s boss. Irka Schultz, was walking slowly away from the ghetto when she heard a faint sound. It was the sound of quiet scraping and a child sniffling disconsolately. Irka fell to her knees and took off her gloves to get a better grip on the manhole cover. Irka peered inside. The stench made her eyes water. She saw a small child’s face, etched in fear and hunger, peering back at her. The child was too frail to climb out of the hole alone. Irka saw a scrap of paper on the child’s filthy clothing. It had only one number on it, the child’s age, and a mother’s plea for someone to help her daughter.

As they walked towards the shadows of a side street, Irka felt how hot and thin the child’s hand was. She needed a doctor. Irka took her to the orphanage on Nowogrodzka Street. Irena Sendler had already put a system in place for this kind of situation. She would clean up the child as best she could and ring Father Boduen’s Children’s Home and say, “Can I stop by today to drop off that coat I borrowed?” The word “today” meant it was an emergency.

At this point, the mass deportations had not yet begun, but there were many children who somehow got over to the Aryan side to find food and, perhaps, safety. By early spring, 1942, Irena Sendler was no longer occasionally helping Jews locate the paperwork that they needed to “disappear” into the city. A lucky break in the autumn of 1941 had shown them a new way to do it. The women had made contact with a local priest in the distant city of Lwow, whose parish church had burned down along with all its records. The priest offered to give them his remaining cache of blank birth certificates, which now could not be cross-checked by German authorities. Irka made the dangerous journey to fetch them. Lwow was about to have an explosion in its birth rate.

Irena did everything she could so that no Jewish child would be sent back to the ghetto. In the spring of 1942, an estimated 4,000 children lived alone on the streets of the Aryan side. Half of them were Jewish. Some were homeless orphans trying to survive by begging or stealing. But desperate families were already sending well-loved but starving children across the wall, children like the one that Irka Schultz discovered. In 1942, Wanda Ziemska was eight years old. “At the entrance of the sewer I said goodbye to Father. The journey through the sewers was quite complicated. At times it looked like a dirty river; I couldn’t reach from one rung to another.”

With Irena’s epidemic control, it was not illegal to take out a child who was desperately ill. If fake cases were discovered, however, the risks were colossal. Giving a Jewish child a piece of bread meant death for both the giver and the receiver.

Youngsters with tuberculosis could be transferred by ambulance to one of the remaining Jewish sanitariums in Otwock. Irena was walking in her father’s footsteps. Sometimes a cough was not tuberculosis, and a child would disappear into a friend’s house in their old village. If the child was a female with blond hair and blue eyes, it wasn’t so hard to integrate her into the orphanage. But what if a child looked “Jewish”? These children could not be seen for an instant outside of the ghetto. They were brought to the orphanage in burlap sacks slung over a workman’s shoulders and delivered to the back door as laundry or potatoes. Then homes had to be found where these children would never go outside so as to never be seen by neighbors.

The Gestapo soon grew suspicious. They searched the official records for scraps of evidence, but the real official records were never in the file cabinet. When the paperwork frustrated them, the Gestapo thugs held guns to people’s heads and bullied all the staff with threats of mass executions. By this time, Irena was the head of a citizen’s army of nearly two dozen people drawn from the political underground, the welfare offices, and the Jewish community inside the ghetto. The risks with that number of people were enormous, and no one was in more danger than Irena.

In the spring of 1942, terrible rumors spread in Warsaw of death in the “east.” Irena knew she had to find ways to save a much larger number of children. She needed help to place even more children with foster families. One person had the power to make this happen: the social welfare administrator, Jan Dobraczynski. Irena was worried that she could not trust a man with politics so different from her own, a man with anti-Semitic feelings. She knew that Jan was strongly Catholic, but he was as committed as any of them to the underground Polish state that they were all building. The growing numbers of children they were smuggling out of the ghetto was unmanageable without someone higher up in the orphanage division helping with placements and paperwork. Irena at last took Jan Dobraczynski into her secret.

Here is how Jan described what happened: “One day my staff, namely social workers, came to me about this matter. The whole group had for some time, of their own volition, been running operations extracting Jewish children from the ghetto and placing them into one or another of the Section’s care centers, on the basis of falsified records and interviews, after arranging the entire matter with the heads of the different centers. However, possibilities had now been exhausted.”

 Jan did not refuse them. He was guided by his Catholic faith and his moral conscience. Also, by the spring of 1942, to refuse to help the resistance was its own kind of danger. Those who collaborated with the Germans were already facing justice in secret Polish courts. What Jan could do was to use his contacts to come to an understanding with institutions across Poland for the transfer of Jewish “orphans.”

The Umschlagplatz

Gross Aktion Warsaw had begun. July 22, 1942 was the first day of the mass deportations. The head of the Judenrat, Adam Czerniakow, was told that he must provide 6,000 Jews a day. By the second day, the Judenrat leader was given a new order for 10,000 people. Knowing that this meant turning over infants and children, Czerniakow finally had a crisis of conscience and committed suicide by swallowing cyanide in his office. The Germans just appointed someone else in his place. There were few volunteers for “resettlement,” and the Jewish police viciously rounded up whole neighborhoods and marched them to the gathering place from which the trains left to the death camp of Treblinka. This square was called the Umschlagplatz.

The Germans wanted to keep up the illusion that this was resettlement of unproductive elements, not mass murder. This gave Irena an opening to save some Jews. Medical care and disease control was part of that fiction, which enabled Irena and her team to go to the Umschlagplatz. Ala Golab-Grynberg, the Jewish head nurse inside the ghetto, set up a “clinic” at the edge of the mass gathering area. There, these brave Jews and Poles played out a role with riveting bravado in a spectacular rescue mission right under the noses of the Germans.

One hero of the story is Nachum Remba. He was not a doctor but a 32-year-old clerk in the Judenrat offices. He was also a member of the Jewish resistance. Nachum had a crazy idea. He and Ala pretended that they had permission to set up a medical clinic. They requisitioned a place near the loading dock. From there, they identified those too sick or too young to travel and insisted on treatment and, sometimes, a hospital transfer. What their “rescue brigade” accomplished was astonishing. Nachum Remba convinced the Germans that he was the chief doctor in the ghetto and Ala was the chief nurse. They played along with the Germans that these were simply resettlements. To keep up the façade, smug Nazis humored the “duped and deluded” Jewish doctors and nurses. Maintaining order was their chief objective, and a few Jews, more or less, would not matter.

The book gives a scenario of how the “actors” fooled the Germans. The main ingredient was pluck and the ability to act calm and professional in the face of Nazi brutes. In some cases, Ala actually put little babies inside her coat, cradled beneath her armpit, and walked them past the sentries. Twenty-year-old Marek Edelman, later a leader of the Warsaw ghetto revolt, moved among the milling crowd, his pockets stuffed with documents signed by Ala certifying that the recipient was too sick to travel. Of course, the number saved was small compared to the horrible numbers who were slaughtered. Hundreds of lives were saved, but thousands were loaded on the trains to Treblinka.

The story is worth reading in detail. Full disclosure: When one has only a limited number of lifesaving certificates to hand out, it is understood that Marek Edelman and the others tried to save people they knew or cared about. The story of the Holocaust is not all black and white by any means. Difficult choices were made at many levels, and everyone was aware they could be killed at any moment.

Dr. Janusz Korczak

Dr. Janusz Korczak was well known to Irena and all of Dr. Radlinska’s circle as he had been a professor at the Polish Free University. He was Jewish but very assimilated into Polish culture. He ran an orphanage in the ghetto for Jewish orphans. Irena was a familiar face at the orphanage and one of the children’s favorite guests at their amateur theatricals. When she heard that the children were to be taken to the Umschlagplatz, the SS had long since arrived at the orphanage with the orders. Irena rushed to try and at the least save the doctor. “The children were to have been taken away alone,” one witness, remembered. The doctor was given 15 minutes to prepare them. Dr. Korczak steadfastly refused to leave the children. “You do not leave a sick child in the night, and you do not leave a child at a time like this,” he said. The German SS officer leading the procession laughed and told the professor to come along, then, if he wished, and good-naturedly, the German asked a 12-year-old boy carrying a violin to play a tune. The children set off from the orphanage singing.

Irena, witnessing this, understood that the doctor had kept from them any fear or knowledge of what was happening. Though the streets were practically empty, dozens watched from their windows or street corners in astounded silence as they witnessed the doctor’s three mile walk through the ghetto with the orphans. The doctor’s face was a frozen mask of hard-won self-control. Irena knew that he was already sick and struggling, but this morning his back was straight, and he was carrying one of the weary toddlers.

Irena thought, “Am I dreaming? Is this possible? What is the possible guilt of the children?” On the empty street corner, her eyes met the doctor’s for a moment. He did not stop to greet her. He said nothing. He just kept walking. The children marched in rows of four and then Irena saw what the littlest ones were carrying. In their hands, they held the dolls that Dr. Witwicki, her old psychology professor at the University of Warsaw, had carved for them. Irena herself had smuggled the dolls through the ghetto checkpoints and given them to the children.

At the Umschlagplatz, the guards drove them with whips and rifle butts into holding grounds. Germans, Ukrainians, and Jewish policemen towered over the children’s heads barking orders. Ala and the “fake doctors” only saw the children at the last moment when the boarding of the freight trains was about to begin. Nachum Remba, aghast, ran to the doctor’s side, hoping to stop him from going. Witnesses say that Nachum Remba was one of the last people to speak to Dr. Janusz Korczak before the boxcars were loaded. He begged the doctor to come with him. Dr. Korczak shook his head slowly,” I cannot leave the children even for a moment.” Then, he followed the children into the boxcar, holding in each arm a tired five-year-old child.

Nachum, the consummate actor, broke down helplessly on the platform. Irena was inconsolable. She went home and basically had a nervous breakdown. Her mother called a doctor, who sedated her. Irena said that of all her horrible experiences, including her own imprisonment by the Gestapo, this left the worst impression on her psyche.

By August 14, 1942, 190,000 people had been transported to their deaths at Treblinka. All through August, Irena and Ala were smuggling children out of the ghetto at a ferocious pace. It was in that period from August till January, 1943, that the majority of the children they saved were rescued. Thanks to Jan Dobraczynski and his signature on the transfer papers, the children were usually sent to convent refuges as soon as new “Polish” identity papers could be found.


To be continued….

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