Wikimedia Commons photo Irena Sendler saved thousands of children during the Second World War.

‘Female Oskar Schindler’s’ story to be told in Surrey

Author reading at Jewish Community Centre will shine light on work of Irena Sendler

Nearly half of Canadians can’t name a single concentration camp from the Holocaust, and 22 per cent of Millennials don’t even know what the Holocaust is.

These are among the findings of a survey, released last month by the Azrieli Foundation. The survey also suggests most Canadians aged 18-34 don’t know how many Jews were murdered; were unable to name any of the 40,000 concentration camps or ghettos; lacked comprehensive understanding of where the Holocaust occurred and showed little familiarity with key Holocaust figures.

This Sunday, the White Rock/South Surrey Jewish Community Centre is playing host to New York Times bestselling author Tilar Mazzeo, who wrote a book about Irena Sendler, an extraordinary woman who was, up until the turn of the century, not mentioned in North American history books.

Dubbed the “female Oskar Schindler,” Sendler helped create a network that smuggled an estimated 2,500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto, the largest Jewish ghetto in German-occupied Europe during the Second World War.

However, she was largely unknown outside of Poland until 2001 when a group of high school students from Kansas researched her and created a play, telling her story. A Jewish businessman watched the play and paid for the students to travel to Poland to meet Sendler.

Sendler – described in Mazzeo’s book, Irena’s Children: The Extraordinary Story of the Woman Who Saved 2,500 Children from the Warsaw Ghetto – was a social welfare pioneer in the ’30s before Germany occupied Poland.

A married Polish Catholic, Sendler had a Jewish boyfriend and many Jewish friends before the Germans invaded Warsaw.

Sendler was separated from her boyfriend when the Warsaw Ghetto wall was constructed in 1940. However, she was able to secure a pass from a doctor to be part of the “epidemic control group,” allowing her to enter and exit the Warsaw Ghetto.

“At that point she sees the disease – people are hungry – it’s a public-health crisis,” Mazzeo told Peace Arch News Monday.

Mazzeo said one of Sendler’s first “acts of resistance” was her decision to smuggle vaccinations into the ghetto.

“At some point, of having to walk over dead bodies of children to go and see her friends and boyfriend, what she realizes is that smuggling medicine isn’t enough.”

Mazzeo said the most vulnerable population inside the ghetto were families that were not from Warsaw, but Jews that had come into the ghetto as refugees.

“Many of those adults died quite quickly, and those children didn’t have extended family networks and were left orphaned in the street, in the ghetto,” Mazzeo said. “What she did on one day – kind of on a whim, as she described it – there was a starving kid, and she took the kid out of the ghetto. She said that’s when she realized that you could do that, that it was possible to smuggle children out.”

Sendler created increasingly elaborate ways to smuggle children out of the ghetto. She would falsify documents and lie about contagious diseases to keep the Germans at bay; she would teach children catechism because it was typical for Germans to ask a child to recite Catholic catechism, and she would even dress little boys – who were circumcised – as if they were little girls.

Sendler would, reportedly, smuggle children under coats, in toolboxes and a coffin. Sometimes, she would slip them into the sewers and secret passages that led to abandoned buildings.

Once a child had completely forgotten their Jewish identity, they could be safely placed in Catholic orphanages, Mazzeo said.

One promise that Sendler made to the parents is that she would reunite them with their children once the war had ended.

“Ninety per cent of the parents died, most of them in Treblinka (extermination camp),” Mazzeo said.

Sendler created a list of every child she helped save, including their true identity. That list was destroyed during the destruction of Warsaw, Mazzeo added.

“Immediately after, (Sendler) and her girlfriends sat down and made a list of every child they could remember. She said, ‘You never forget a child you took from their parents in the middle of the ghetto,’” Mazzeo said.

Mazzeo said that Sendler and her friends risked certain death if she was ever suspected of trying to help the Jews.

“During the Nazi period, the rule was that helping a Jewish person was a capital crime. And helping meant giving directions on the street, giving a starving person a piece of bread. The punishment was collective punishment,” Mazzeo said.

“They would come to your home, if you were hiding any Jewish people they would round up the Jewish children first and execute them on the street. Then they would execute the Jewish adults, then they would execute your children in front of you. Then they would execute you and you would be left on the street corner and nobody would be allowed to touch your body.”

Under suspicion, Sendler was arrested by the Germans and taken to Pawiak prison. On her way to the prison, she ate a piece of paper that contained names of Jewish children she was to visit later that day.

In prison, Sendler was tortured and both of her legs were broken.

After attempting to physically compel Sendler to provide information, the Nazis decided to execute her. As Sendler was on her way to be shot, a prison guard – who was bribed by others in Sendler’s resistance – rerouted her and saved her life.

Mazzeo said the guard was paid the biggest bribe in the resistance’s history, and he was subsequently executed by the Germans.

Once free, Sendler changed her name and got right back to the work she was doing.

“She was a force of nature,” Mazzeo said.

“You could break both her legs and try to execute her and she was still going to get right back up.”

Mazzeo said she spent two years researching for the book, and spent months in Warsaw interviewing survivors. As Holocaust survivors near the end of their lives, Mazzeo said now is the last moment to do certain research.

When asked to describe her impression of Sendler, who died in 2008, Mazzeo says she resists the idea that Irena Sendler was a saint.

“Or that it would be a good thing to think of her as a saint. Not that she wasn’t a really good person, she clearly is a woman of immense moral and physical courage. But she was a person like any of us – she was not a saint,” Mazzeo said. “What’s so inspiring is that this is what an average person is capable of. This is a group of people who… in the face of something really wrong, decided to do something right. And they didn’t have to be more special than the rest of us. (Sendler) being called a saint gets the rest of us off the hook.”

Mazzeo is to speak about Irena’s Children at the White Rock/South Surrey Jewish Community Centre from 4:30-5:30 p.m., (32-3033 King George Blvd.) Feb. 10. The event is part of the centre’s Jewish Book Festival.

The book was released in 2017.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

 

Irena Sendler (Wikimedia Commons photo)

Irena Sendler (Wikimedia Commons photo)

Gordon Chibroski photo Tilar Mazzeo is to speak about her book, Irena’s Children: The Extraordinary Story of the Woman Who Saved 2,500 Children from the Warsaw Ghetto, on Feb. 10.

Tilar Mazzeo is to speak about her book, Irena’s Children: The Extraordinary Story of the Woman Who Saved 2,500 Children from the Warsaw Ghetto, on Feb. 10. (Gordon Chibroski photo)

Irena’s Children: The Extraordinary Story of the Woman Who Saved 2,500 Children from the Warsaw Ghetto.

Just Posted

Surrey monitoring traffic as vehicles again clog city streets

Compared with city’s 2019 weekly average, deepest volume reduction was in late March with up to 46 per cent less vehicles

Surrey’s top cop is keynote speaker at Surrey Board of Trade AGM

Asssistant Commissioner Brian Edwards will be on deck at Tuesday’s ‘virtual’ meeting

Art’s Scarecrow Festival returns in September

Sixth annual event will be different than previous events because of the pandemic

Refund emails from City of White Rock a ‘phishing’ scam

IT staff work to nullify security breach in ‘classic phishing campaign’

North Delta crime beat, week of Aug. 2

A selection of property crimes submitted weekly by the Delta Police Department

B.C. records new COVID-19 death, 85 more cases; Horgan calls on celebrity help

This brings the total number of active confirmed cases to 531 across the province

Teachers to get 2 extra days to prepare for students’ return, now set for Sept. 10

Students will first start with orientation and learn rules of COVID-19 classroom policies

High-volume littering at Cape Scott draws ire from hiking groups

Popular Vancouver Island hiking spot not closing, but frustration about crowding grows

SFU to drop ‘Clan’ varsity team name

The ‘Clan’ name is shortened from ‘Clansmen,’ and was introduced roughly 55 years ago

New Tory leader must build a strong team in Commons and for the campaign: Scheer

Scheer marked his final day in the House of Commons today as leader of the Opposition

B.C. to hire 500 more COVID-19 contact tracers ahead of fall

Contract tracers add an ‘extra layer’ in the fight against the novel coronavirus

Feds commit $305M in additional funds for Indigenous communities during COVID-19

Money can be used to battle food insecurity and support children and mental health

We were a bit tone deaf: Hobo Cannabis renamed Dutch Love after backlash

Hobo Cannabis has various locations in Vancouver, Kelowna and Ottawa

Man accused of killing Red Deer doctor says he does not remember attack

Appearing before a judge, Deng Mabiour, 54, rambled about being sick and needing a doctor

Most Read