As the years pass, the number of Holocaust survivors who can offer first-hand testimony about the horrors that they endured under Nazi persecution dwindles. World War II ended almost seventy years ago; even the youngest survivors are now in their seventies – most survivors are in their eighties and nineties.
Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem, the largest Holocaust memorial in the world, is engaged in round-the-clock research to identify as many victims’ names as possible. Additionally, Yad Vashem researchers are working to ascertain further information about dates, events, and other incidents that will help ensure that people who lived and died during the years of World War II and the Holocaust will never be forgotten.
In 1963, Yad Vashem opened a special program called, “Righteous Among the Nations.” Non-Jewish individuals who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust are presented with this honorarium and, for any recipient who wishes, are granted Israeli citizenship. One of the first Righteous Gentile awards was bestowed on a Polish woman, Irena Sendler – a woman who saved over 2,500 Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto. Sendler was brought to Jerusalem to receive her award in 1963 but following the ceremony, she returned to Warsaw, and her incredible acts of courage were nearly forgotten. It was only when a group of Kansas schoolgirls, while researching the Holocaust, followed up on a rumor that they had heard about Sendler, that her story was re-publicized.
Irena Sendler was a young social worker in Poland in 1939. After the Nazi invasion, she joined the Zagota resistance and helped Jews escape the Germans. Zagota asked Sendler to accept responsibility for the organization’s Children’s Action Committee, and she immediately took on the challenge of finding ways to help children who were imprisoned in the Warsaw ghetto.
Sendler’s solution involved smuggling children out of the ghetto. She sedated the youngest children and hid them under her tram seat or within toolboxes and/or luggage. Sometimes the children were secured in carts underneath garbage or barking dogs to deter the German guards from investigating further. Older children were led through the sewers or similar underground passages before being brought to the free side of Warsaw. There the Zagota members kept them safe until they could be brought to a secure hiding place. Sendler entered the ghetto daily, risking her life with every crossing, to try and convince desperate parents to allow her to take their children. Some parents agreed, others refused — no one knew for sure whether there was a way to protect the children. “I talked the mothers out of their children,” Sendler said in an interview nearly sixty years after the events.
Sendler carefully recorded the names and the hiding places of the children on slips of tissue paper, which she then put in glass jars and buried in her yard. Sendler hoped that, after the war, she would be able to help the children locate their surviving relatives or, at the very least, return to their people. “Irena’s children” were hidden with sympathetic Polish families as well as in convents and orphanages throughout Poland. However, in October of 1943, after the fall of the Warsaw Ghetto, Sendler was arrested by the Gestapo. They tortured her, but she did not reveal any information about the children’s hiding places or about her Zagota comrades. The Germans sentenced Sendler to be executed, but Zagota was able to bribe a German guard and spirit Sendler out of the prison. She lived out the war in hiding.
Yad Vashem bestowed one of its first “Righteous Among the Nations” honors on Sendler, but it wasn’t until 1999 that the public began to hear about her story. Four high school students in Uniontown Kansas, who were working on a school project, heard about Sendler and began to research the available information about her. There was actually very little data available, but the girls discovered that Irena Sendler was still alive. They received funding to travel to Poland and meet her. Their tenacity resulted in a wide-ranging project that has impacted Holocaust studies worldwide. The “Life in a Jar” project now encompasses a book, a website, and a live performance which has been viewed by tens of thousands of people throughout the world. Most importantly, the girls’ research resulted in the establishment of the Lowell Milken Center, which is dedicated to publicizing the actions of unsung heroes.