This is a common sentiment expressed by rescuers. In many ways, they’re absolutely right. Almost all of us feel a calling to stand up for what we know is right. The problem is we don’t act on these callings. As inspirational speaker Jim Rohn said, “The few who do are the envy of the many who only watch.”
But greatness is within the grasp of all of us. We just need to act.
Perhaps by studying the actions of Sendler we too can hear the voice inside us and do the regular things that make a positive difference in the world.
Sendler was a member of the Polish underground and a nurse in Warsaw. The Nazis had forced all Jews in the city to live in a horribly crowded, dirty and walled-off ghetto without enough food or medicine. They were terrified of diseases like typhus that could spread to the general population and Sendler was hired by the Social Welfare Department to take measures to prevent such an outbreak. She used her position of trust to smuggle children out of the ghetto.
Working with a group of other women involved in the underground, they smuggled roughly 2,500 children to safety, using whatever means necessary – even through the sewer system and by hiding children in packages.
The children were given new names and hidden in Catholic orphanages, boarding schools and with families. The children’s real names were placed in jars and buried, only to be dug up when the Nazis had left Poland.
At one point, Sendler was discovered by the Nazis and severely tortured. But she never betrayed her collaborators or the children. In the end, her life was miraculously spared.
After the war, Sendler spent most of her life in relative obscurity in Poland. She was awarded the prestigious Righteous Among the Nations award by Israel in 1965. But Israel was not on good terms with the communist government in Poland and little was made of her accomplishments until well after the Cold War ended.
Finally in 1999, a high school in a small town in Kansas created a play about Sendler’s courageous work called Life in a Jar. Then, Sendler received a number of awards and was even nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007. The play inspired the film A Courageous Heart, which was released in 2009, a year after Sendler’s death.
Sendler lived in obscurity for most of her life and died in relative poverty. Even a number of child survivors of the Warsaw ghetto only found out about her activities shortly before her death. They visited her and tried to make her life more comfortable. One of the survivors, Vancouver author and teacher Lillian Boraks-Nemetz, told me “She was very poor but only financially, not in spirit.”
A certain peace comes in having the courage to act, in knowing that we didn’t turn away. Torture, obscurity and poverty could never take that away from Sendler.
It’s a quality that every one of us can find. We can all be heroes. We can all be rescuers.
By studying the lives of people like Irena Sendler, we come to recognize this truth. And as more and more of us embrace it, we bring the world to a brighter future than we can even imagine.
Gerry Chidiac is an award-winning high school teacher specializing in languages, genocide studies and work with at-risk students.