As hundreds of thousands of Polish Jews were mercilessly forced into a tiny ghetto in Warsaw in the fall of 1940, a young Catholic social worker -- not yet 30 -- made a righteous decision: She would aid those penned in behind the walls of the Ghetto. Employed by the Welfare Department of the Warsaw municipality, she entered the Ghetto to help alleviate the suffering of the multitudes trapped without food and medical supplies. The Nazi regime, fearful that typhus might spread beyond the walls of the Ghetto, allowed her to minister to the ill. By late November, however, the Jewish quarter was completely sealed off; it became impossible for her to visit under the auspices of her official duties.
It would have been simpler for this plucky young woman to admit defeat under those extraordinarily perverse conditions. Many in her position would -- and did -- fretfully concede that there was little to be done; the forces of immorality and depravity were too overwhelming to mount a resistance.
But, instead, she built a network.
Reaching out to friends -- mostly young women in their teens and 20s -- she organized a courageous scheme to smuggle Jewish children out of the Ghetto before they were deported to Treblinka and murdered. Although rescuing the children was absurdly daring, the real work came once the children were on the other side: finding safehouses, forging documents, and coaching Jewish children in Christian prayers so they could "pass" as gentiles. Some children were adopted into Polish families; others were hidden in convents and orphanages. She and her dauntless accomplices saved the lives of over 2,500 Jewish children. This is not just rumor or hearsay: We know what she did because she kept the names of the rescued children and their families buried in jars hoping to reunite them after the war.
Despite beatings that fractured a leg and foot, she did not divulge the names or whereabouts of the children or their protectors. Sentenced to death for aiding and abetting Jews, she escaped when members of the Polish underground -- the Zegota -- bribed a guard at Pawiak Prison. She went into hiding but stubbornly -- valiantly -- continued her work in the Resistance.
Despite years of teaching social studies and history, I just recently discovered this incredible account. Polish communists successfully buried her story after the war. Labeled subversive, her engrossing story languished behind the Iron Curtain. That is, until three students in a small Kansas high school recovered it. How fitting that her rescuers from historical obscurity were a team of young women.
It all started with a question.
Megan Stewart, Elizabeth Cambers and Sabrina Coons had agreed to participate in a year-long history project for National History Day back in 1999. Their teacher -- who exhorted them to live their class motto: "He who changes one person, changes the world entire" -- had shown them an old magazine clipping about a woman named Irena Sendler who allegedly saved more than 2,000 children from the Warsaw Ghetto. He asked: "Might this be a typographical error?" Like me -- and so many other teachers -- he had neither heard the name Irena Sendler nor her astonishing story. His students set out to locate any primary or secondary sources to corroborate the story. What they discovered was sweeter than piecing together their miraculous historical puzzle: They discovered Irena Sendler alive.
They exchanged many letters with Sendler and told her about the performance they'd written about her: "Life in a Jar." She told them, "Before the day you had written 'Life in a Jar,' the world did not know our story; your performance and work is continuing the effort I started over 50 years ago. You are my dearly beloved ones." When they later traveled to Warsaw to meet with Sendler, who was then 91, she begged them to always end their performances the same way: They must tell the audience that the real heroes of the story were the Jewish parents and grandparents who selflessly -- heart-achingly -- gave up their children to a stranger so they might live. She explained to the students that terrified parents would ask her for a guarantee that their children would be safe. Her response: "I don't even know if I will get out of the Ghetto alive today." But these exhausted, horror-struck parents still found the almost inhuman courage to trust that love would ultimately conquer the devil.
Unlike in 1999, when students took on year-long projects, history and social studies have been deemed "not critical" for students today -- as if studying history is a luxury we can no longer afford. We can't afford not to. Learning long forgotten details about heroism combats the ceaseless drumbeats of tyrants. It urges us to do better, to be better. Hitler has long since moldered in his distant grave, but cruel beasts like Robert Mugabe, Bashar al-Assad and Kim Jong-un still callously rule their long-suffering people. There is still so much work to be done.
In a 2005 interview Sendler reflected on being labeled a hero: "We who were rescuing children are not some kind of heroes ... The opposite is true. I continue to have qualms of conscience that I did so little. I could have done more. This regret will follow me to my death."
As you light candles for Hanukkah or Advent -- or simply to cast light in winter's prolonged darkness -- remember Irena Sendler. Wish her soul peace in its eternal rest or joy in its further travels. Her light has spread well beyond her lifetime and forever touches generations -- the countless descendants of the children she saved.