Did you happen to catch The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler on Sunday night? It was a Hallmark movie based on a true, incredible story. If you didn’t see it…Netflix it.
In the fall of 1999, a rural Kansas teacher encouraged four students to work on a year-long National History Day project.
Three ninth graders and an eleventh grader accepted the challenge and decided to enter their project in the National History Day program. The teacher showed them a short clipping from a March 1994 issue of News and World Report, which said, “Irena Sendler saved 2,500 children from the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942-43.” He told the girls the article might be a typographical error, since he had not heard of this woman or story. The curious students investigated and were baffled. “Why hadn’t we heard of Irena Sendler? Oskar Schindler saved 1,100 Jews and had a Web site and hit movie about his life. She was practically anonymous, except for a brief mention on one Web site.”
Prodded by Conard and guided by their class motto, “He who changes one person changes the entire world,” the students crafted a 10-minute play
based on what little they could find regarding Sendler’s feat. Their LIFE IN A JAR presentation won the Kansas contest and was a National History Day finalist.
This is what those four kids discovered about Irena Sendler, a woman who was not even five feet tall but was known as “the little giant” by the survivors whom she rescued:
When Nazis walled up Polish Jews to keep them cornered for shipment in rail cars to death camps, they were also subjecting them to starvation and disease. Irena Sendler’s outrage at such cruelty overcame fears for her own safety and inspired her to act. Disguised as an infection control nurse, she sometimes entered the ghetto three times a day to persuade parents to let her smuggle their children out using false identities.
Sendler carefully recorded each child’s Jewish name, Polish name and address on scraps of tissue paper she would hide in glass jars to be buried so birth parents could find them after the war. By 1943 Sendler was in charge of 24 women and one man in Zegota’s (Polish underground) children’s division.
Despite Sendler’s nurse’s disguise, expertly forged ghetto transit papers and meticulous skill at smuggling children out in toolboxes, suitcases, old sewer pipes—even coffins—Sendler was caught. She was arrested and tortured for three months at Pawiak Prison, having her legs and feet broken. She was to be executed, but before it could be carried out, Zegota had spies bribe a guard to help the badly injured
Sendler escape from the Gestapo.
Amazingly, she continued working with the Polish underground while moving around Warsaw to secret hiding places, including the zoo.
Sendler suffered throughout her life from those wounds she received while at the prison, and was branded as a Communist after the war. Her story was discovered just a few years before she died, at the age of 98.
He who changes one person, changes the entire world.