Thursday, August 1, 2013

Chasidei Umot HaOlam Live

"He who saves one life... it as if he saves an entire universe..." Talmud Sanhedrin 4:5

Since 1953 Yad VaShem in Jerusalem has been charged with the task of perpetuating the memory of the Holocaust and its victims. As part of that mission Yad VaShem researches accounts of individuals -- the Righteous Among the Nations -- who, at great risk to their own lives, helped Jews escape the Nazi dragnet during WWII. To date Yad Vashem has honored over 20,000 individuals who saved their Jewish neighbors and friends and, oftentimes, perfect strangers.

In 1965 Yad Vashem honored a Polish woman, Irena Sendler, who had saved, according to historians, over 3000 Jews between the years 1939 and 1943. Following her award ceremony Sendler returned to Warsaw where the story of her activities was almost forgotten until it was revived by a group of Uniontown Kansas schoolgirls in 1999. The girls were researching the Holocaust for their social studies class and stumbled across the bare backbones of Sendler's life. They adopted the project and spent a massive amount of time researching it until, in 2003, they traveled to Poland to meet and interview the then-93-year-old Sendler.

The girls' work got them funding from Jewish philanthropist Lowell Milken allowing them to create a wide-ranging project that includes a book, a website and a performance of Sendler's life and her actions during WWII on behalf of thousands of Jewish lives.

Sendler was a young Polish social worker in 1939 when the war broke out. She watched the Nazis begin their persecutions of the Jews and joined with her friends in the Polish underground to help Jews procure false documents that would allow them to blend into the Polish society. When the Nazis closed off the Warsaw ghetto in November 1940, interning over 400,000 Jews within the 3.4 square mile perimeter, she herself obtained forged documents that would allow her to enter the ghetto freely.

Sendler crossed into the ghetto daily -- sometimes several times a day -- in the guise of a nurse who specialized in infectious diseases. She began to smuggle street orphans out of the ghetto and, as the conditions in the ghetto worsened, she approached parents and tried to convince them to let her take their children out of the ghetto.

Sendler was traumatized by those interactions. "I talked the mothers out of their children" she said during an interview that was conducted over half a century after the events. "Those scenes over whether to give a child away were heart-rending. Sometimes, they wouldn't give me the child. Their first question was, 'What guarantee is there that the child will live?' I said, 'None. I don't even know if I will get out of the ghetto alive today."

Sendler smuggled many of the children out of the ghetto under her tram seat. Others were sedated and hidden in luggage or toolboxes or even in carts that had piles of garbage or baking dogs on top of them to distract the German guards. Zagota members led some of the older children out through the sewer pipes that ran underneath the city. All in all historians believe that Irena Sendler and her comrades successfully smuggled over 2500 children out of the ghetto.

Once the children reached the safety of the other side of the ghetto walls they needed forged documents and hiding places. Sendler saw to these details and made sure that the children knew Catholic prayers and liturgy so that they could blend in with their new non-Jewish environment. Many of the children were sent to orphanages and convents while others were hidden with sympathetic families. Sendler recorded all of the children's names, along with their hiding places, on pieces of tissue paper which she hid in glass jars that were buried in her yard.

In October of 1943 Sendler was arrested and taken to the notorious Pawiak prison. The Nazis questioned her, breaking both of her legs during the interrogations, but Sendler did not divulge any information about her children or about her fellow Zagota members. The Germans scheduled her for execution but her Zagota friends managed to bribe a German and Sendler was able to flee the prison moments before her scheduled execution. She lived out the rest of the war in hiding.   

Laurie Rappeport made aliyah to Safed, Israel 30 years ago from Detroit. She works in the field of education, utilizing different forms of formal and informal educational models for young Jewish learners of all ages. Laurie is also involved in a wide range of projects which are aimed at bringing visitors to Safed to enjoy the religious, historical, cultural and artistic sites and experiences that the city has to offer.



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