“And the Nobel Peace Prize goes to the man in the tin foil hat, Mr. Al Gore.”
That’s how Citizen Wells website introduced the story of Irena Sendler, a lady unknown to most of us, who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize on the same billing as Mr. Gore.
The Second World War exploits of Irena Sendler, born Irena Krzyzanowska in Otwock, Poland in 1910, remained a footnote in history for over sixty years, until Kansas teens Elizabeth Cambers, Megan Stewart and Sabrina Coons, “discovered” her during a school history project in 2001.
The story begins at Irena’s father’s deathbed. He told seven-year-old Irena, “If you see someone drowning you must try to rescue them, even if you cannot swim. People can only be divided into good or bad—their race, religion, nationality don’t matter.”
She lived his words!
She was a social worker when the Nazis invaded her homeland in 1939. Then she became Jolanta, a code name in Zegota, the Polish underground movement. She and her underground children’s welfare team saved 2,500 children from the horrendous crimes against humanity committed by the Nazis.
The three Kansas teens, later joined by a fourth, Jessica Shelton, produced a play called Life in a Jar telling Irena’s story. It was performed over 200 times in the US, Canada, and Poland.
Their title came from Sendler’s identity files. She listed the name, and new identity, of every rescued child on thin cigarette or tissue paper. She hid the lists in glass jars, buried under an apple tree in an underground friend’s backyard. She planned to reunite the children with their families after the war. Indeed, though most of their parents perished in the Warsaw Ghetto or in Treblinka, those children who had surviving relatives were returned to them after the war.
The Kansas teens were thrilled when they discovered she was still alive at 90 years old, and they went to meet her. Their words tell us here is a heroine worthy of humanities recognition, a woman who has shown them the way.
“The first time I met Irena, I was amazed by her wisdom and grace,” said Stewart. “Her courage and love can tear down any barrier. She has challenged us to continue her story and inspire others.”
“Life in a Jar made me realize Irena is a heroine for the entire world to believe in,” added Shelton. “She’s given me hope in a world of sorrow, and inspiration to make a difference. Seeing Irena and all the love she has for others is a life-altering experience.” Cambers will follow her ideals working with inner city students teaching them Irena’s example, that one person can change the world for the better.
“I was always extremely shy and quiet because with a military family we moved a lot and I was always the new kid; it all changed after I became part of the project,” said Coons.
When the teens began their project an internet search revealed only one website that mentioned Irena Sendler. Now there are over 300,000.
In an interview with ABC News in 2007, Irena Sendler voiced some of her frustration: “After the Second World War it seemed that humanity understood something, and that nothing like that would happen again. Humanity has understood nothing. Religious, tribal, national wars continue. The world continues to be in a sea of blood.
“The world can be better, if there’s love, tolerance and humility,” she added.
Ladies Home Journal writer, Marti Attoun introduced her article about Irena thus: “This is the amazing story of Irena Sendler of Poland who was one of Al Gore’s co-nominees for the Nobel Peace Prize. Sure, she didn’t properly capitalize monetarily from her deeds. She didn’t become a pop icon, but she did save 2,500 Jewish kids from Nazi extermination. Does that count? Nah, films about global warming, that’s what it’s all about.”
So, who would you have honoured?
This is but a glimpse into a remarkable life. I recommend her story to you—a mother who made a difference few can match.
Irena Sendler, mother, died a year ago, 12 May 2008. She was 98 years old.