Women in History: Irina Sendler

Irina Sendler (also called Irina Sendlerowa) was born in Warsaw in 1910. Her father was a doctor who treated the very poor at no charge, and who instilled his strongly Humanitarian values in his daughter. 

After finishing school, Irina studied law and literature  at the University of Warsaw. She opposed the practice of discrimination against the poor and the a Jewish people, and joined both the Union of Polish Democratic Youth and the Socialist Party, earning a reputation for being both a Communist and sympathetic to Jews that kept her from finding employment as a teacher throughout the 1930s. Instead, she took up a role as a social worker which exposed her to the most extreme poverty in and around Warsaw. She worked closely with mothers and children, and published articles about the conditions in which disadvantaged women were living.

When Germany invaded Poland on September 1st, 1939, the division in which Sendler was working was prohibited from working with Jewish people, and began working with sick and wounded a Polish soldiers. Irons and her colleagues began to issue false medical documents to help the soldiers and their families access welfare, a practice which she extended to Jewish families without telling her colleagues she was doing so. 

The Jewish people were restricted to one small area of the city which became known as the Warsaw ghetto, which was closed off to general access in 1940. Sendler and her colleagues gained entry on the proviso of checking for infectious diseases such as Typhus. Against orders, they smuggled in medications, food, sanitary supplies and other necessities. Over time, this extended to smuggling out babies and small children by various means, including carrying them in their medical bags. 

The children were sent to Polish families, Catholic orphanages and convents, and other orphanages. A Christian institution offered the best protection for the children, who were given Christian names and taught Christian prayers and religion once placed there. Sendler kept detailed records, though, in the hope of eventually reuniting children with their families.

Obviously, this work put Sendler and her colleagues at great personal risk, as helping Jews carried the death penalty.  The degree of danger increased when the ghetto was officially dismantled by Germany in 1942, with orders for its residents were collected in groups and sent to extermination camps. Sendler and her colleagues helped as many adults and adolescents to escape to temporary emergency housing as they could. 

On October 18, 1943, Irina was arrested, tortured for information which she refused to divulge, and then imprisoned in Pawiak. She was further interrogated on later dates, and then sent elsewhere for execution, only escaping this fate because her guards had been bribed. She resumed her work under an assumed name, and tried to remain in hiding as much as she could. 

In 1944, the Polish resistance engaged in the Warsaw Uprising, during which Irina worked as a nurse in a field hospital. When that hospital ran out of money and supplies, Irina took the initiative and hitchhiked to Lublin to seek assistance from the communists who were in control of the city. 

After the war, the hospital in which Irina worked was transformed into the Warsaw Children’s Home. Sendler and her colleagues gave all the names and family details of the children they had saved to the Central Committee of Polish Jews with the aim of reuniting the families, but most of the parents had been killed during the Holocaust, so this only had limited success. 

Irina Sendler received numerous decorations and honours for her service and bravery in the years after the war, both in Poland and from other countries and international bodies. 

The grave of Irena Sendler in Powązki cemetery
Image: Jake from Manchester, UK via Wikimedia Common

Sendler continued to work for the wellbeing and care of women and children. She also remained active in the Communist party, although her relationship with the party was not always a harmonious one. She taught until the age of 73, when she retired, remaining in Warsaw for the rest of her life. After her death on May 2nd, 2008, Irina Sendler was buried in the Powazki Cemetery in Warsaw. 

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ANZAC Day: It’s Part Of Who We Are.

ANZAC Day is more than just a very special day. It’s part of who we are.

Today is ANZAC Day: the day on which Australians and New Zealanders stop to commemorate and reflect on the sacrifice of all those who served our countries – very often side by side – in World War I, and ever since.

113 years after the ANZAC forces stormed the beaches and clambered up the cliffs at Gallipoli, we stand in sombre silence and remember the enormous losses of life suffered on that day, and every other day, during major conflicts like the two World Wars. Every year, attendance at dawn services, ANZAC Day marches, and commemoration ceremonies around Australia grows, even though all the soldiers who fought in World War I, and many who fought in World War II, have passed away.

2018-04-25 12.13.17Peter Rock, the MC at this morning’s ceremony at the cenotaph in my local town, made a profound observation in the early moments of his opening speech: “Those who are surprised by the fact that ANZAC Day commemorations continue to draw record attendance understand very little of our national character.” He went on to speak about how and why we remember those who fought and sacrificed themselves for our freedom. Their bravery is renowned, but so is their commitment despite adversity, their mateship, and their love for their country. He’s absolutely right – those are qualities that have indeed become part of our national character. Our freedom and our mateship are the rewards of their courage and service.

That’s something my town has been reminded of in recent weeks. This time, our enemy was fire, and our battle was fought with water and fire retardant foam, not with bullets and mortars. Those who faced the danger and fought to keep the rest of us safe did so knowing they were putting themselves at risk, but that didn’t stop them. Behind the fire front, they were supported by others who worked tirelessly to supply and feed them, but also to care for those who had to flee from the fires, and for all those who were traumatised by them in various ways. Of course, it’s a very different scale to what was experienced by the soldiers who went to war, but the selflessness and the determination to serve and protect is the same.

Thankfully, no lives were lost in that particular war, although there were numerous casualties in terms of homes and livelihoods. It has been relentless and exhausting, yet our community has come together yet again to help, support, and defend. People may have lost their houses, but they are not homeless: we are their home, and we will make sure they have what they need to start over and keep going. In true Aussie fashion, our local community has been incredibly generous, as have many people from beyond the local area. There really is no better place to live.

Today’s ceremony was, as always, very well attended. Representatives from service groups, churches, local government organisations, school students and professional organisations laid wreaths in memory of the fallen. Families stood together, some wearing medals that belonged to fathers, uncles, or grandparents who served in the military and have since passed on. The flags of both Australia and New Zealand were flown at half mast until after the minute of silent reflection, and the national anthems of both countries were sung. Tears – whether of sorrow for the fallen, of thankfulness for the freedom we enjoy, of patriotic pride, or a combination of all those factors – were shed.

 

This afternoon, there’s a big concert being held on the local football ground, not just to raise funds for fire relief, but also to give some joy and celebration back to a community that has done some really hard yards over the past six weeks. Talents from both the local area and further afield will be performing. Local businesses are providing catering, entertainment, and every other service that’s needed.

And you can bet your bottom dollar that the locals are going to turn out in force to support that concert, and each other, because that’s what we do. We stick together in times of trouble, and we cheer each other on in our victories. In doing that on ANZAC Day, we will continue to remember the lessons we learned from the ANZACS and all our other diggers.

At the going down of the sun, just as we did in the morning, we WILL remember them.

ANZAC Day, 2015.

Hundreds of people attended the ANZAC Day memorial service at the cenotaph in Cobden for the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli landing. There were thousands at the dawn service in Warrnambool and hundreds of thousands at the dawn service in Melbourne. The grey clouds and steady rain did not deter them: instead, it seemed appropriate for a time of sombre reflection.

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In Cobden, the path to the cenotaph was lined by a guard of honour consisting of our Scouts and Girl Guides.

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A lone piper played in tribute to the fallen and in honour of the returned servicemen who were present.

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Hearing the New Zealand ode spoken in Maori was very powerful, even though most people there couldn’t understand a word of it. The speaker’s love for his country and thankfulness for the ANZACs and all those who served after them was evident through the emotion in his voice.

The Australian ode was spoken equally powerfully.It was impossible to remain unmoved by all the feelings of love for my country, gratitude for those who have served and the freedoms we still have because of them, and sadness for the loss of life on both sides. I made no effort to hide several tears that spilled down my cheek when they played The Last Post and during the period of silent observance before they played the Reveille.

When they played the instrumental version of the Australian national anthem there was no invitation to sing, but half the crowd sang anyway. I would have loved it if everyone joined in, but I guess the “I’m not singing in public” sentiment is still strong among many people.

It was beautiful to meet a little boy, Euan, who was incredibly proud to be wearing his great-grandfather’s war medals. I watched him stand attentively and proudly through the whole ceremony. He had obviously been made aware by his parents of the importance of the medals and the reason for the commemoration, because he took it all very seriously.

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I am so thankful that remembering those who served their country and their fellow Australians, New Zealanders and allies, often at the expense of their own lives, is so important to so many.

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“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.”

Lest We Forget.