A Nobel Prize for peace - and image

By Yossi Melman

Last Update: 11/09/2006


In 1942, in the midst of World War Two, Irena Sendler secretly packed a few Jewish children into an ambulance and smuggled them out of the Warsaw Ghetto. In the front passenger seat, next to the driver, she put a dog, whose loud barking drowned out the crying children. Throughout the war, Sendler worked to save Jewish children - 2,500 in total.

In an interview she gave in 1995 to Jewish-French writer and filmmaker Marek Halter, she said she regretted only one thing: "I could have done more," she said tearfully. "This feeling of regret will accompany me until my dying day."

Now, Polish president Lech Kaczynski, in Israel this week, is trying to change Poland's image in the eyes of Israelis, many of whom believe the country's residents helped the Nazis to exterminate Jews. Through the initiative Kaczynski is proposing both countries back a Nobel Peace Prize nomination for Sendler, now 96 years old.

However, the proposal may face opposition from an unexpected place: Yad Vashem.

Irena Sendler was born in 1910. Her socialist-leaning father was a doctor in Otwock. Most of his patients were Jews from the town, located 20 kilometers southeast of Warsaw. When World War Two broke out, Irena Sendler began helping the Jews of the town even before the Nazis established the Warsaw ghetto. She helped set up soup kitchens for the poor, for orphans and for homeless Jews whose property and bank accounts had been appropriated by the Nazis.

In 1942, Sendler, then a senior director of the Warsaw welfare department, joined the Zegota - the code name for the Council for Aid to Jews. Her underground name was Jolenta, and she was appointed to head the initiative to save Jewish children. In the Zegota, Sendler increased her efforts to rescue Jews. From helping them stay alive, she began working to save them, putting her own life at risk. There was only one punishment in occupied Poland for those who helped Jews hide - death.

Sendler conscripted a few assistants, partners to the secret conspiracy, and together they registered Jews under false Christian names, procured them documents and helped them obtain certificates stating they were very ill so the Nazis would not examine them. After the Warsaw Ghetto was set up, Sendler obtained documents from doctors so she and her assistant, Irena Schultz, could enter the ghetto daily on the pretext of preventing plagues from spreading to other parts of the city. They smuggled in money, food, medicine, clothes and messages to the Jewish underground movements.

Silent under torture

Sendler's efforts peaked when she began working to save Jewish children by smuggling them out of the ghetto and transferring them to Christian families or monasteries. She persuaded Jewish parents to leave their children in her hands, and found hiding places for sick youngsters until they recovered. When their condition improved, they were taken to foster families or to monasteries, after she and her Polish underground peers had obtained them forged documents.

Sendler also took pains to ensure all these acts were documented. She wrote down in code the original name of the child, the new name, and the name of the adoptive family or monastery. She did all this to ensure the children would be returned to their families after the war - or at least would be able to find out who they were. She stuffed these lists into glass jars and buried them in the garden. She saved some 2,500 children this way.

In October 1943, Sendler was arrested by the Gestapo. Even though she was severely tortured - her legs were broken and she has since then needed crutches - she refused to talk or reveal the identities of the children she had saved. A Nazi court sentenced her to death, but her colleagues in the underground freed her after bribing a guard to list her as executed. Sendler assumed a new identity and lived in hiding until the end of the war.

After the war, she worked at the Polish health ministry. Because she had been a member of the national underground, she faced threats by the Communist authorities. But they didn't dare touch her - even though they threatened to keep her children from attending college. In 1965, Yad Vashem granted Sendler the title of Righteous Among the Nations, and in 1991 she was awarded honorary Israeli citizenship. She is currently wheel-chair bound and living in a Warsaw old-age home.

Yad Vashem wants the prize

Kaczynski's visit, which officially begins today, is mainly for emotional and historical reasons. Officially speaking, Poland and Israel have no problems with each other. The ties in all fields - commercial, intelligence, security, cultural - are good and getting better. In the past few years, Poland has become Israel's closest ally in the European Union.

Unlike EU members such as Italy, Britain, Holland or Spain, Poland has no interests regarding Israel and makes no commercial or political demands. The only baggage weighing on the two countries' ties is historical, centered on the Holocaust.

In this regard, the Polish president would like to change Israelis' image of his country. Poland has become fixed in the collective Israeli memory as the country most responsible for the Holocaust. Sometimes Israelis believe it is more guilty than even Nazi Germany - because the Nazis set up the extermination camps on Polish soil. These camps have become synonymous with the most systematic destruction of humans in history - Auschwitz, Maidanek, Treblinka, Chelmno.

The fact that several brave undergrounds and individuals acted to save many Jews in Poland has been sidelined. In fact, it is uncertain Polish cooperation with the Nazi occupation was greater than that in Holland or France. The Polish president is extremely interested in stressing these two points in his country's relations with Israel.

In order to focus on the positive aspects of the two countries' ties, Kaczynski plans to make a unique request of his hosts: He is to ask President Moshe Katsav, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Vice Premier Shimon Peres to lend their sponsorship to Sendler's nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize. In parallel, Nobel Peace Prize winners Peres and former Polish president Lech Walesa will also nominate Sendler.

Israel's ambassador to Warsaw, David Peleg, who is accompanying Kaczynski on his visit, supports the initiative. Nevertheless, the joint proposal may meet opposition from an unexpected place: Yad Vashem. Even though it would not admit it, the organization itself would like the prize. Last year a precedent was set in the granting of the prize to an organization: The International Atomic Energy Agency and its head, Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei, were honored for preventing the spread of nuclear weapons.

In an official response, Yad Vashem stated it does not object to the idea of nominating Sendler, even though it would prefer the prize be awarded to all the Righteous Among the Nations, many of whom did no less than Sendler did. Yad Vashem added that for several years it has been acting behind the scenes to promote this idea.

If Kaczynski succeeds in persuading the Israeli government to back Sendler's nomination, the next hurdle will be the Nobel committee itself. If Sendler actually wins, this will be the first time a Nobel prize would have been awarded in connection to the Holocaust.