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Irena Sendler's Glass Jars

Europe is now at the brink of a full-fledged war with nuclear threats looming in the air; however, the scent of ash, smoke, and gunpowder is no stranger to the wind that gushed across Europe back in the early 1900s. The second world war did not begin when Germany invaded Poland, no, it began the day a few men sought to seek revenge from the others in the name of religion, community or faith especially that one man who committed the worst crime of them all, a mass genocide —The Holocaust. It all commenced with the passing of the Enabling Act of 1933 which established dictatorship in Germany. It limited the president and the parliament’s power allowing Hitler’s government to rule by decree. It called for the banning of all individuals representing altering political views to those of the Nazis. It allowed Hitler’s government to force hundreds of thousands of Jews to live in just over a square mile of land. It allowed Hitler’s government to detach the Jews from the world by building high walls around the ghetto. This gave Hitler’s government the power to have built concentration camps and have the ones residing in them starve and beg for mercy. “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a jew. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak for me.” Although these words said by Martin Niemoller remind us of just how dire the situation was and just how afraid people were to speak up against their cruel regime, we should remember that even today we have survivors of the Holocaust living in different parts of Europe, albeit with different identities. They survived an almost certain death, the question is how? In the words of Irena Sandler, “A person must be rescued when drowning, regardless of religion and nationality.” Irena Sendler was born to a Catholic family in the city of Otwock, Poland, in the year 1910. In 1939, when the world war broke out, Irena was working as a social worker in the welfare department of the Warsaw municipality. She never stopped performing her duties even when Nazi Germany had taken complete control over Poland in 1939, she helped those who had become victims of the war and she used her position to further help thousands of Jews. The rationale behind her actions can be understood by glancing at her childhood. She had grown up in a household whose ideology was to oppose anti-semitism, for her father was a doctor and would treat patients from poor Jewish families that other doctors refused to help. Even as a young university student she tarnished her non-Jewish identity card leading to her suspension and a terrible reputation. Irena Sendler was a brave woman who always took an explicit stance against the segregation of the Jews and knowing of the potential horrors that would strike those living in the ghetto, she along with her colleagues got passes from the security to enter the ghetto on the pretence of checking for typhus outbreaks. Their first order of business was to smuggle in resources that could help sustain these Jewish families. She did this with the help of sympathetic polish and medical officials but she soon realised the only way she could help these people was by providing them with a path to escape, a safe path to escape because people until then were sending their children over the walls and through the sewers. The plan of action her group devised was an intricate one requiring utmost coordination. They had to be extremely careful because if they got caught then all would be punished in the worst way - death. Sendler first did the heartbreaking task of convincing parents to trust her with their children and with little to no promise of a reunion. She hid the younger jewish children inside dirty laundry, boxes, coffins, toolboxes and briefcases. She helped these children escape right under the noses of the gestapo (secret police force of Nazi Germany). Older children escaped through the courthouses and the church. After getting them out of the ghetto she ferried these children to safe houses. She forged them new identities in order to send them to orphanages, convents, and foster families from their safe houses across Poland. What is truly commendable here is that while she forged new identities for these children she took upon herself to do the painstaking task of writing their real name and their whereabouts on cigarette paper and stored them in glass jars. In the year 1942, Hitler’s government started moving jews from the ghetto to concentration camps, this increased the sense of urgency with which Sendler was working. She now required more resources which is why she joined Zegota, a polish council formed to aid Jews between 1942-45. They stashed money for Sendler in different post boxes across Warsaw so she could use it to conduct her operations on a larger scale. This worked wonders until she got caught. The Gestapo was a ruthless force to reckon with and when they threatened the owner of a laundry business whose post box contained an envelope of money with Zegota written on it, the owner snitched and took Sendler’s name. At 3 AM on the 20th of October, the Gestapo managed to handcuff Sendler and imprison her under the account of aiding Jews throughout the country, an offence which was punishable by death. Sendler displayed immense amounts of fortitude inside that cell — she endured physical and psychological torture. However, she informed them of not a single name of a Jewish child and neither did any of her colleagues. Even a sentence of death did not provoke any answers out of her. On January 20, 1944, Sendler was to be executed. She sat in the car on her way to meet her fate when her car took a detour. Zegota had paid the Gestapo an equivalent of a hundred thousand dollars in today’s time for Sendler’s release. After her release, do not be mistaken one bit, for this woman began working from the underground with a newfound motivation to aid the Jewish community. She oversaw Zegota’s rescue operations until 1945 when Germany was defeated. Sendler connected with the children she had helped escape. It was these children that have never let her story fade away. She saved more than 2000 Jewish children and took it even further by jotting down their true Jewish identities and even after doing God’s work and enduring the devil’s punishment, Sendler made this statement, “I continue to have qualms of conscience that I did so little.” Sendler's story is only one among many who saved thousands of innocent jews from the wrath of the Nazis. Even her daughter Janina Zgrzembska played a crucial role in protecting the identities of these children. There are many such unsung heroes and the work they did time gives people today, hope for humanity


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