Irena Sendler 1910 - 2008
This month marks the 70th anniversary of the ending of WWII in Europe. Many of us had family members who took part in this tragic war. My dad fought in the Battle of Metz - and brought home a box full of pictures to tell the tale. I hear people ask, “Why does God let war happen”? This is a good question. Christians, agnostics, atheists – all have their answers. Rarely do answers satisfy when one of our own is lost in war. We read in the Letter of St. James “Where do the wars and where do the conflicts among you come from? Is it not from your passions that make war within your members”? We are to blame for the suffering caused by war, because of our selfishness, greed, pride, and competitive spirit--the destruction of others for selfish gain. John Paul II said that “War is a defeat for humanity.” Still, in the midst of conflict and affliction, the love of God shines through, for God is Love. It is in these moments that God cries out to His people "let me show you the love that I have for YOU. Let me show you the depths of my heart and the grace, peace, and hope that I have for YOU."
St. John tells us today “Whoever acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God remains in him and he in God.” To acknowledge does not mean only to “believe.” St. James says “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that–and shudder.” No, to acknowledge God means to act – to be like Christ – To have the mind of Christ, to think as He thinks, to be a bearer of light in a dark world. This is how we remain in God.
Irena Sendler was one who acknowledged God. She was born outside of Warsaw, Poland in 1910. Her father was a devout catholic doctor who treated the Jewish patients. Many would not. The Jewish community was grateful and paid for Irena’s education at Warsaw University. While a student, she began protesting the legalized segregation of Jewish students into separate parts of the classroom known as the “ghetto benches.” She was suspended from the University for three years. In time, she would become Catholic Social worker and nurse, finding work at the urban Social Welfare Department.
In 1939 the Germans invaded Poland. They enacted strict death penalties for those aiding or hiding Jews as well as their families. Despite the risks Irena - became “active” in the Polish underground movement. Irena and her colleagues falsified over 3,000 documents to help Jewish families escape. She would say later in life “Every child saved with my help - and the help of all the wonderful secret messengers, who today are no longer living, is the justification of my existence on this earth, and not a title to glory.” Irena was guarded by the Lord.
The Germans forced over 400,000 Jews into a Warsaw Ghetto the size of 16 city blocks. Executions and deportations to death camps became a daily occurrence. Irena used her position in the Welfare Dept. to gain permission to enter the Ghetto to control the spread of typhus (which the Germans feared would spread outside of the Ghetto).
She would wear a Star of David on her arm while performing her work in the Ghetto to make herself inconspicuous amongst the people while doing her duties. She organized a network of associates within the Ghetto to house the children she would rescue. She developed shared phrases such as “I have clothing for the convent,” so she could communicate when she had new children in need of placement. She would smuggle children out of the ghetto, hiding them in toolboxes, potato sacks, gunny sacks, even coffins. Unlike others who were rescuing Jewish children, Irena’s intention was to keep the names and new identities of the rescued children and their families so she would be able to return them to Jewish relatives after the war. Aware of the risks to herself and those identified on the list, she kept the list buried in jars away from her house near an apple tree. In 1943, after a year of rescuing children, Irena came under suspicion of the Gestapo who arrested her. Despite severe torture, Irena would not give up the identities of the children or the people she worked with and was sentenced to execution by firing squad. While in prison, Irena organized resistance efforts, such as cutting holes in the soldier’s underwear they washed. For this act, she barely escaped death as they killed every-other woman as they stood in a line. After a final torture session, where her arms and legs were broken, Irena regained consciousness to find that the German guard had been bribed by her friends. The guard marked her off as executed and left her in the woods to be rescued. Irena lived out the rest of the war in hiding and did what she could to help save Jewish children. She died on 12 May 2008.
Irena is a wonderful example for us. She acknowledged God by being light and hope in the midst of madness. She was compelled to act and she did. We are all compelled to act. How do we acknowledge that Jesus is the Son of God? St. John says “we must obey His commands – if we do not, we are liars, and the Truth is not in us.” John 2:3-5
To remain in God's love invites us to be centered and rooted in a love that is boundless, endless, all-engulfing, generous, caring, and true. To remain in God's love leads us to a trust that frees us to act in Jesus name. Jesus says that we do not belong to the world any more then He belongs to the world. We are surrounded by horrors, tragedies, war. The knowledge that we are not of this world gives us hope even in the darkest times. We are adopted heirs of heaven by God Himself. Like Irena Sendler, we too can bring others into the “not of this world” relationship with Jesus Christ.