Irena Sendler’s re­mark­able courage should in­spire us all

Such great­ness is within the grasp of all of us

The Hamilton Spectator - - COMMENT - GERRY CHIDIAC

A cer­tain peace comes in hav­ing the courage to act, in know­ing that we didn’t turn away.

Irena Sendler, when asked about the thou­sands of Jewish chil­dren she saved dur­ing the Sec­ond World War, said, “I was no hero. I just did a reg­u­lar thing.”

This is a com­mon sen­ti­ment ex­pressed by res­cuers. In many ways, they’re ab­so­lutely right. Al­most all of us feel a call­ing to stand up for what we know is right. The prob­lem is we don’t act on these call­ings. As in­spi­ra­tional speaker Jim Rohn said, “The few who do are the envy of the many who only watch.”

But great­ness is within the grasp of all of us. We just need to act.

Per­haps by study­ing the ac­tions of Sendler we too can hear the voice in­side us and do the reg­u­lar things that make a pos­i­tive dif­fer­ence in the world.

Sendler was a mem­ber of the Pol­ish un­der­ground and a nurse in War­saw. The Nazis had forced all Jews in the city to live in a hor­ri­bly crowded, dirty and walled-off ghetto with­out enough food or medicine.

They were ter­ri­fied of dis­eases like ty­phus that could spread to the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion, and Sendler was hired by the So­cial Welfare De­part­ment to take mea­sures to pre­vent such an out­break.

She used her po­si­tion of trust to smug­gle chil­dren out of the ghetto.

Work­ing with a group of other women in­volved in the un­der­ground, they smug­gled roughly 2,500 chil­dren to safety, us­ing what­ever means nec­es­sary — even through the sewer sys­tem and by hid­ing chil­dren in pack­ages.

The chil­dren were given new names and hid­den in Catholic or­phan­ages, board­ing schools and with fam­i­lies. The chil­dren’s real names were placed in jars and buried, only to be dug up when the Nazis had left Poland. At one point, Sendler was dis­cov­ered by the Nazis and tor­tured.

But she never be­trayed her col­lab­o­ra­tors or the chil­dren. In the end, her life was mirac­u­lously spared.

Af­ter the war, Sendler spent most of her life in rel­a­tive ob­scu­rity in Poland. She was awarded the pres­ti­gious Right­eous Among the Na­tions award by Is­rael in 1965. But Is­rael was not on good terms with the com­mu­nist gov­ern­ment in Poland and lit­tle was made of her ac­com­plish­ments un­til well af­ter the Cold War ended.

Fi­nally in 1999, a high school in a small town in Kansas cre­ated a play about Sendler’s coura­geous work called “Life in a Jar.” Then, Sendler re­ceived a num­ber of awards and was even nom­i­nated for the No­bel Peace Prize in 2007. The play in­spired the film “A Coura­geous Heart,” which was re­leased in 2009, a year af­ter Sendler’s death.

Sendler lived in ob­scu­rity for most of her life and died in rel­a­tive poverty. Even a num­ber of child sur­vivors of the War­saw ghetto only found out about her ac­tiv­i­ties shortly be­fore her death. They vis­ited her and tried to make her life more com­fort­able. One of the sur­vivors, Van­cou­ver author and teacher Lil­lian Bo­raks-Nemetz, told me “She was very poor but only fi­nan­cially, not in spirit.”

A cer­tain peace comes in hav­ing the courage to act, in know­ing that we didn’t turn away. Tor­ture, ob­scu­rity and poverty could never take that away from Sendler.

It’s a quality that ev­ery one of us can find. We can all be he­roes. We can all be res­cuers.

By study­ing the lives of peo­ple like Irena Sendler, we come to rec­og­nize this truth.

And as more and more of us em­brace it, we bring the world to a brighter fu­ture than we can even imag­ine.

Gerry Chidiac is an award-win­ning high school teacher spe­cial­iz­ing in lan­guages, geno­cide stud­ies and work with at-risk stu­dents. Dis­trib­uted by Troy Me­dia

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