Roy Exum: On Irena’s Heavenly Birthday

Friday, May 12, 2017 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

Back in 1999, a school teacher in rural Kansas explained to three girls in his class what a “typo” was; when there is an inadvertent typographic error in a story. He showed the 11th grader and two ninth-graders a page torn from a magazine four years before that claimed a woman had single-handedly saved the lives of 2,500 Jewish children during the Holocaust. “That’s a typo – if that were true the whole world would know by now but – still -- why don’t you research this as a school project?” said the teacher, a Mr. Conrad if you must know.

Get this -- There are only 200 kids at Uniontown Middle/High School, grades 7 through 12, but the students are as bright, inquisitive, relentless and – yes – as glorious as you will find anywhere in America. They not only found a bedazzling Irena Sendler, whose “heavenly birthday” we celebrate on May 12 every year, they learned it was not a “typo,” that she saved more Jewish children than just 2,500, certainly more Jewish children than any other individual (outside of a diplomat) in the Nazis’ reign of horror.

At first she disguised herself as a plumber, going into the Warsaw Ghetto and bringing child after child out in her toolbox. She would cover herself in foul-smelling filth – that’s why the Nazis never searched her – and Irena got a big dog to accompany her, for if the baby cried, Irena had trained the dog to bark like a maniac if she tapped its paw. This would inevitably send the Nazi guard dogs at the checkpoint into chaotic frenzy, drowning out the infant’s cries.

Later she was able to pose as a nurse, allowed inside the Ghetto to check for typhus, and once she got an ambulance, the underground network – Zegota --- really got cranking. Not even Nazis mess with typhus. Another great trick was to smuggle kids through the Catholic Church after giving them Christian names and having them memorize Christian prayers. After each service, two or three more “Aryan” kids would come out the “free side” of the church and less on the “ghetto” side.

Like so many valiant Freedom Fighters, she was eventually caught and brutally tortured by the Gestapo. Her tormenters broke Sendler’s legs, then her feet, but Sendler could not be broken, While in prison she was forced to work in the laundry, where she and other women took delight in cutting holes in the soldier’s underpants. The Nazis marched out the laundry workers, lined them all up, and killed every other one with a pistol. Only by luck was Irena odd-man-out that terrifying day.

She was finally sentenced to death by a firing squad but as Sendler was being taken into the woods, the clever Zegota managed to bribe an SS officer, who left her at a designated spot with her broken legs and falsified her death certificate by firing squad. She worked tirelessly for the underground until the Russians chased the Germans out of Warsaw. (Incidentally, the Warsaw Ghetto was about the size of New York City’s Central Park; at its height it held a half-million prisoners.)

As the Germans ran, now it was the Communist secret police who imprisoned and brutally tortured “Saint Sendler” for two long years. Russians don’t appreciate Freedom Fighters. (She had helped adult Jews escape in the Warsaw Uprising) so it was 1949 before she could dig up carefully-hidden jars with each child’s name, and their parents' name, and their last known location. Most of the parents had been murdered at the notorious Treblinka Extermination Camp, along with an estimated 700,000-900,000 Jews.

Some of those rescued were indeed reunited with their parents and Israel was well aware what a heroine Irena had been but when a tree was planted in her honor in a Righteous among the Nations ceremony, in 1965, the Communists refused to allow Sendler to leave the country, further masking her great contributions to mankind.

The Communists weren’t about to make her a hero so she worked in medical schools, organized orphanages, health care centers and even a center where former prostitutes could regain their dignity. She was relentless in her efforts for others. Her father had been a doctor and she was reared to help the downtrodden.

Yet in the way karma always shows up, the fun part started. Under Mr. Conrad’s guidance, the three girls at Uniontown Middle/High began to research Irena Sendler. They wrote to Israel, they contacted Warsaw, and soon wrote and produced a 10-minute play called “Life in A Jar” – where Irena hid the childrens’ true identities. It won the Iowa history contest and soon the girls were performing it around the state.

Their interest in Irena Sendler continued. Where is she buried, they wondered and found she was still alive. They wrote to her, through a Polish interpreter college student and exchanged letters. Their requests to perform the play poured into the school and, one night in Kansas City, a well-heeled businessman was so moved that in less than 24 hours he’d leaned on his buddies and  arranged an all-expenses paid trip to Warsaw.

The Uniontown girls and Mr. Conrad were treated like royalty. In turn, they delighted in the 4-foot-11 Irena. They performed their play for government officials and the international press responded in kind. After the magnificent story had been repressed for 60 years, Irena Sendler was awarded Poland’s highest honor, the Order of the White Eagle. Movies had been made, documentaries shown. In 2007 Irena was a finalist for the Nobel Prize (you’ll remember Albert Gore won instead.)

In Poland the insanity of the Holocaust came out of the closet. The underground Zegota was no longer secret and was now a huge source of Polish pride. Schools around the country are named for Sendler and, of course, Irena now had “daughters” in Iowa. “I cannot find the words to thank you, for my own country, and the world, to know the bravery of the rescuers. Before the day you had written ‘Life in a Jar,’ the world did not know our story … your performance and work is continuing the effort I started over 50 years ago.”

On May 12, 2008, Irena Sendler died at the age of 94. She was buried in the Powazki cemetery in Warsaw that is tightly reserved for Poland’s greatest leaders. Frederick Chopin’s mother and father are there, along with other nobility, but – to this day – the grave site with the most candles, by far, is that of Irena Sendler.

Five days before she died, her final words to the girls in Uniontown were: “You have changed Poland, you have changed the United States, you have changed the world. I love you very, very much.”

That page in U.S. News and World Report, torn from the magazine four years before Mr. Conrad gave it to his students, didn’t contain a “typo.” Instead it helped the most unlikely girls you ever saw change the world.

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