On his deathbed, Irena Sendler‘s father taught her the lesson that would guide her life. At age 7, she internalized his dying words: “… if she ever saw someone drowning, she must jump in and try to save that person, even if she could not swim.” By 1940, Hitler had ravaged Poland and 400,000 Jews were corralled into the Warsaw Ghetto. Sendler, a Catholic social worker, realized “The Jewish people are drowning“; she donned a nurse’s uniform and talked her way into the “nightmare” ghetto, providing food, clothing, and medicine as best as she could.
In 1942 when the Nazis began the mass removal of Warsaw Jews to the Treblinka extermination camp, Sendler joined the underground resistance organization Zegota and became the head of the children’s section. She helped smuggle the youngest victims out of the ghetto, and provided each with false identity documents before sending them to orphanages, convents, and non-Jewish foster homes. In the havoc and panic – not to mention the extreme danger – Sendler had the foresight to keep careful records of each child’s true and false information so that each might be reunited with their families after the war. Those records she buried in jars under an apple tree in a friend’s garden.
Sendler miraculously survived the war, including being captured and tortured. She returned to the garden, and dug up the names of some 2,500 children she had helped to save …
In 2007 when Sendler was reported to have been nominated (a closed, secret process) for the Nobel Peace Prize (Al Gore won that year to the very public disappointment of the International Federation of Social Workers [March 27, 2013: the link seems to have been taken down, however, the ISFW statement can be found by scrolling down this page]), people saw her photo in newspapers and began to call: “‘I remember your face … It was you who took me out of the ghetto.’” In her final years (she lived to be 98!), Sendler’s caretaker was a woman who had been a Warsaw Ghetto baby carried out in a carpenter’s box under a load of bricks.
Discovering new heroes is surely one of the very best gifts of the holiday season. Author Marcia Vaughan’s words presented just right for younger readers, together with Ron Mazellan‘s deeply textured illustrations, offer a gentle way to share this courageous story with your ready readers, to inspire and teach them how a single, determined person can indeed save the lives of thousands.
Readers: Children, Middle Grade