A jewel in the crown of humanity


International Holocaust Remembrance Day will be dedicated to Irena Sendler, the Polish woman who saved 2,500 Jewish children during the Nazi Holocaust.

Rafal Kiepuszewski reports

This weekend marks the International Holocaust Remembrance Day. This year's ceremonies will be devoted to Irena Sendler, the Polish woman who saved 2,500 Jewish children during the Nazi Holocaust, and who was described by one writer as the 'jewel in the crown of humanity'. Poland and Israel are making a joint bid for Irena Sendler to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

In Nazi-occupied Warsaw Irena Sendler was working as a social worker. She started helping the Jews of Warsaw long before the Nazis closed off the city's Jewish population inside the ghetto. Then, on behalf of the Polish resistance movement, she was entrusted with the role of saving as many Jewish children as she could. Sendler was ideally suited for the job.

As a social worker, she had a pass to enter the ghetto, from where she smuggled Jewish children to place them in Polish families, orphanages and in Roman Catholic convents. Arrested by the Gestapo in 1943, she was sentenced to death, but the Polish Żegota organization managed to free her from prison. 97 year old Irena Sendler has been jointly nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Poland and Israel. Several organizations in Israel have addressed a letter to the Nobel committee to support the initiative.

Lili Haber is the president of the union of Israelis whose families come from the Polish city of Krakow.

'Jewish organizations that are involved in Jewish life before WWII in Poland we think that she is the right woman in the right place to get this award, as she is the one who can represent the good in the heart of people when evil was the standard all around, and she was like a light in those days. We want to emphasise that whenever it's bad there are also people who are good and that we should look up to them.'

Lili Pohlman, a Polish Jewish writer who lives in London, is a Holocaust survivor herself. She knows Irena Sendler personally. She recently wrote a book about her.

'She is a walking saint on this earth, she is a jewel in the crown of humanity. She is the most remarkable human being from every single point of view. She is goodness and kindness personified, at the same time she is wisdom, intelligence and a sense of humour at the age of 97. It's a joy and privilege to be in her presence.'

But according to Lili Haber of the Israeli union of Krakovians, for all her noble deeds, Irena Sendler is really unknown in her country. She explains that this may be due to the similarity of her family name to that of Oskar Schindler, the German industrialist who saved Jews from the Holocaust. Lili Haber says it's high time Irena Sendler became a household name.

'If you ask anyone here in Israel if they can give you one name, they will say Oskar Schindler, of course, because of the film and the book. Nobody knows about Sendler. They can say Wallenberg, but Mrs Sendler is known here in Israel. It's a shame. There was no movie. The book wasn't translated into Hebrew. There is a marvelous book which was published two years ago in the German language, but it wasn't translated into Hebrew. This is one thing we want to do.'

Many Holocaust survivors like London-based writer Lili Pohlman believe that it is important for Poland that Irena Sendler should receive the Nobel Peace Prize. She argues that not enough is known internationally about the fact that it wasn't just individual Poles, but entire organizations like Żegota, of which Irena Sendler was part that came to the assistance of Jews during the Nazi occupation.

'It will bring to the map of the world that goodness and humanity, not just heroism, because she detests being called a heroine, but that people like her existed and could mobilize others to do good, to help. This could stop the denials of the Holocaust on the world scale, and for Poland it should be the greatest honour to receive such an award.'

In 1965, Irena Sendler was recognized by the Israeli Yad Vashem organization as a righteous among nations, the honour bestowed on those merited for saving Jews during the Holocaust. Those who actively support Irena Sendler's candidacy for the Nobel Peace Prize point out that the tree planted in her honour in the Yad Vashem memorial garden in Jerusalem is one of many honouring Poles. In fact, trees dedicated to Poles form the single largest group there. For News from Poland I'm RK.