As I mentioned last week, I recently returned from a whirlwind trip to Israel and Jordan. It was an exhausting but life-changing experience. One of the most incredible, intense experiences I had during my visit was seeing Yad Vashem, the Jerusalem Holocaust Memorial. After leaving the museum, it was difficult for me to even articulate the emotional effect it had on me. Seeing the pictures and stories of the millions of people that had perished affected me in a way that I didn’t anticipate.
As time passed and I was able to make sense of the experience, I became interested in better understanding what had motivated the heroes that attempted to aid and assist the Jews. These brave, courageous women and men risked their lives and their family’s lives to do the right thing. They refused to believe the Nazi propaganda and unlike the majority of the population, they refused to turn their back on innocent victims that were treated unjustly. If they were caught aiding the Jews, chances are, they and their families were killed instantly.
One such hero is a Polish Catholic Social Worker named Irena Sendler. She served in the Polish Underground, the Zegota resistance organization in German-occupied Warsaw. Irena was responsible for checking on the status of the Typhus outbreak inside the Warsaw ghetto, where 500,000 Jews resided. The Nazi’s were terrified that the disease would spread outside the ghetto walls. Irena smuggled food, medicine and clothing into the ghetto for the families.
Irena was able to secretly remove 2,500 children from the ghetto. Many were disguised as packages. She provided false identity documents for them and hid their real identities in jars, which she buried in her friends backyard. Once they were safely out, she placed them in homes with Polish families, nuns and priests. These courageous volunteers risked their lives in order to welcome these children into their homes. At the end of the war, the children would be returned to their families.
Eventually, the Nazi’s discovered Irena’s actions and captured her. She refused to divulge any information even though she was severely tortured. While imprisoned and waiting for execution, she was rescued by the underground resistance and spent the remainder of the wartime in hiding. Very few children were ever reunited with their parents since almost all of the individuals in the ghetto perished.
Irena was one girlfriend that definitely had her inner sass. She was courageous, strong and clear on her convictions. She knew what was important to her in life and she was willing to risk all to be true to her beliefs. She refused to sit by and watch innocent people be treated unfairly.
So what about you? What would you do in such a dire situation? Would you have the courage to stand up for what you believe in or would you keep the “status quo” to stay safe? Are you a follower or a leader? What is your legacy to the world? It doesn’t have to be quite as dramatic as Irena’s, but what will people remember about you? Do you live your life in fear or do you push yourself outside your comfort zone?
It is my hope that you will take a lesson from Irena— let go of fear and live your life to the fullest. Be true to yourself and go after what’s important in life. Irena refused to back down to the “no’s”— she believed in possibilities even in the face of such doom. We all could learn a thing or two from this courageous woman.
For more information about Irena, go to www.irenasendler.org