“And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased” (Hebrews 13:6).
Irena Sendler is a name mostly forgotten by history, but during World War II, she saved thousands of children from certain death.
Sendler was 30 years old when Germany invaded her native Poland in 1939. Working for a social welfare organization in Warsaw, she helped create more than 3,000 false documents to help Jewish families escape the Nazis.
As the war progressed, nearly half a million Polish Jews were forced to move into the Warsaw Ghetto, a walled off portion of the city about the size of New York’s Central Park. Starvation and disease were rampant.
The Nazis soon began exporting ghetto residents by freight train to the Treblinka death camp, where between 700,000 and 900,000 Jews were executed during the war.
Sendler joined the Polish Council to Aid Jews, a branch of the Polish resistance movement, and as a social worker, she was allowed to enter the ghetto to inspect for infectious diseases. What the Nazi guards didn’t know is that she often left the ghetto with Jewish children, smuggled in cloth sacks, trunks or in ambulances.
She took the children to Christian or Catholic homes where they were given new names, but Sendler kept a list of their real names and the names of their parents. She buried these names in glass jars, hoping to reunite the children with their families after the war.
Sendler led a group of about 24 other people who rescued more than 2,500 Jewish children. She smuggled some 400 children herself.
In October 1943, she was arrested by the Gestapo and brutally beaten. She was sentenced to death by firing squad, but the Polish underground was able to bribe her executioner to help her escape. After her release, she returned to work for the Polish underground.
When the war ended, Sendler tried to reunite the children with their parents, but nearly all of them had been executed at Treblinka.
Sendler, who lived to be 94, never liked the word “hero.”
“Let me stress most emphatically that we who were rescuing children are not some kind of heroes. Indeed, that term irritates me greatly. The opposite is true. I continue to have pangs of conscience that I did so little,” she once said. “Heroes do extraordinary things. What I did was not an extraordinary thing. It was normal.”
Risking her life to help others was a natural reaction to the horrors of war.
“I was brought up to believe that a person must be rescued when drowning, regardless of religion and nationality,” Sendler once said.
We encounter “drowning” people every single day. Some need physical help, while others are headed toward spiritual death.
Jesus said in Matthew 25:35-40, “‘For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”
Pray that God would make rescuing others your “normal” reaction to the people you encounter.
> Can you think of someone who could use some help?
> In what ways do you serve others throughout the week?