Courage and nobility. Today those words often perish on our lips. But from 1940 in the Warsaw ghetto, in the midst of the dehumanisation and appalling degradation of hundreds of thousands of people, their meaning was still fresh and invigorating. Words Irena Sendler had, to a supreme degree, the power of making visible.
Irena Sendler, née Irena Krzyżanowska, was a Polish social worker who helped save thousands of Jewish children’s lives during the Holocaust. It is thought she was personally responsible for saving at least 450. It’s difficult to reconcile such heroism with the commonplace job of social work; but sometimes it’s only through periods of implacable difficulty that we’ll discover our powers. When human will and moral fortitude is adjusted to the scale of emergency. Extreme conditions have a way of evincing both the best and worst of what humanity has to offer. And Irena possessed the courage, the constancy, the enthusiasm, and the emotional energy to find a way of surmounting the will of a nation.
A rabid central European anti-Semitism took political root in the most horrifying of ways in Germany in the 1930s. The Nazis were one of several political parties that took advantage of a period of political and economic instability following the end of the First World War. Once in power, they brought matches and flammable materials to a place only too ready to blaze out into wickedness, exploiting people’s prejudices and fears by presenting Jews and communists as common enemies against whom the German people should unite. These groups, it was said, were an existential threat to the Aryan race. The culture was soon saturated with a grand doomsday narrative, cynically spun to manipulate the minds of the population. Pernicious ideas that were as diffuse as the light that fills up a room.
This met with such perverse success that by 1942, the Final Solution, the Nazi’s secret plan to kill all the Jews of Europe, was in its advanced stages. It was a plan that first deprived Jews of their humanity, marking them out as a people inferior to their Aryan counterparts; then liberty, isolating them from society by forcibly herding them into ethnic ghettos; before it, in millions of cases, deprived them of their lives. A plan that enlisted relatively few active participants, there being many more by-standers, unwilling or unable to help. The Nazis deceived their intended victims as they deceived the rest of society. Many did not believe that the Jews were doomed until it was too late.
One person who did believe was Irena Sendler. She saw the emergency and she helped make all the people around her see it; rekindling the flailing hope and courage in all those who were exhausted by hardship and privation. Passing through like a whirlwind, she purified the moral atmosphere, as a storm purifies the physical atmosphere. Her very presence was a fumigation of evil.
When Germany invaded Poland in the fall of 1939, Irena Sendler was a senior figure in the Warsaw Social Welfare Department. She soon joined the Zegota, the Council for Aid to Jews, organised by the Polish underground resistance. Under the code name “Jolanta”, she headed the children’s division and, obtaining a pass from the Warsaw Epidemic Control Department, she smuggled food, clothing and medicine into the Warsaw ghetto. Efforts initially seemed futile. 450,000 souls had been packed into a small 16-block area and disease was spreading. Up to 5,000 were dying a month.
Slowly the ghetto was getting empty as the Germans were starting to transport the Jews to the concentration camps. Irena was desperate. Heading a division of 25, she hatched a plan to try and save the children. Many years later she recalled, “When the war started Poland was drowning in a sea of blood. But most of all, it affected the Jewish nation. And within that nation, it was the children who suffered most. That’s why we needed to give our hearts to them”.
In a race against the clock Irena and her team organised to smuggle out as many children as possible from the ghetto. Not only did they have to get the children out undetected, they had to find non-Jewish families who were prepared to hide them in their homes at great risk to their lives. No small matter for all involved. It’s estimated that 700 Poles were executed as a result of harbouring Jewish children.
A young mother herself, Irena found it tremendously painful trying to convince parents to part with their children. People thought that Treblinka, the next destination for many Jews in the Warsaw ghetto, may have been a relocation settlement, when in fact it was even worse than Auschwitz, containing little more than gas chambers and ovens. Irena and her team tirelessly pressed upon them the urgency of the situation, persuading thousands.
Small children were sedated to keep them from crying, then hidden in sacks, coffins, boxes, or in bags of old clothes, which were donated to convents and orphanages. Other children pretended to be ill so they could be taken out in ambulances. They were also smuggled out through sewers, underground tunnels, and through a secret passageway connecting the old courthouse adjacent to the ghetto. Irena even had her dog trained to bark on command to drown out any noise coming from the fugitives.
Irena buried a list of the hidden children in a jar under an apple tree in a friend’s backyard in order to keep track of their original and new identities. The goal was to reunite the children with their parents, if they survived the war. Sadly, of course, most didn’t. And on the night of October 20th, 1943, it appeared extremely unlikely that Irena would survive the war.
The operation had been compromised. She was arrested by the Gestapo and imprisoned in Warsaw’s infamous Pawiak prison. Irena was subjected to weeks of torture by her captors. Both her feet and legs were broken. Her arms were fractured. But at no point did she betray her confidences – not a single word passed from her lips. No amount of suffering would make her shrink from the course which she believed it to be her duty to engage in.
She was sentenced to death by firing squad. But on the day of her execution a colleague from Zegota managed to bribe one of the guards and Irena was smuggled out in a similar fashion to the many children she had saved. Though the guard listed her as one of the those who had been executed, the Gestapo later discovered the subterfuge. They sent the guard to the Russian front, a punishment considered worse than death, and Irena spent the remainder of the war in hiding. She continued her efforts to rescue Jewish children; but by this time the ghetto had been completely purged.
At the start of the second world war more than a million and a half Jewish children were living in Europe. By the war’s end fewer than 1 in 10 had survived. Irena was head of a network that saved at least 2,500 children from near certain death. The injuries she sustained during captivity were such that she required the use of crutches and a wheelchair for the rest of her life.
Today, we are incredulous at how such extreme conditions could have developed in a modern industrial society; but history informs us that large numbers of people across the social milieu will remain unconscious of distortion and manipulation. Typically, those who reside in the upper echelons of societal success or in the lower echelons of intellect will maintain a high moral and self-righteous tone in the face of conflicting information to dominant narratives. One contributing factor is an overwhelming desire to think well of ourselves, our institutions and our leaders. A kind of patriotism, if you will. That we’re all in this together. We see ourselves as righteous, so therefore the corporate state apparatus functions in accordance with the same benign intent, a supposition that is common even if it is a transparent non sequitur.
Even so, one would think that such cruel and iniquitous conditions should have led to popular indignation calculated to bring down the strong arm of the law. Yet for most in Germain occupied territories, fortitude proved too weak for cowardice; sympathy too weak for fear; reason too weak for credulity. It’s to be expected. Cowards, whose fear of death and social ridicule is greater than their self-respect, can generally console themselves with the thought they are doing the right thing even when it is plain that they are not.
But Irena Sendler was different. Instead of an ordinary life of sensation, she lived a deeper life of reflection, which has the effect of unanchoring us from the negative thoughts and opinions of others. Her independence of character and strong powers of thought stirred within her, instilling a predisposition to rebelliousness that is the lot of every proud and passionate nature. This was merely raised to the surface when outward conditions contrasted sharply with her inner moral conviction. Nazi power amounted to such a tyranny that Irena’s conscience insisted she be placed as victim rather than inadvertent inflictor.
She understood that as a moral being, we’re morally powerless if we depart from our own conception of life and character. Indeed, if we are to surrender our own judgement and unthinkingly adopt the standards of the day, we’re no different to a brute animal, which reacts to stimulus instinctively. As such, individual morality is quite superfluous to collective morality. We cease to choose our moral path; we have our path imposed upon us. With the system paving all the broad paths which led to the same destination: an extreme agenda. Irena, however, did not suffer from vertigo, so she went along the narrow path across the cliff edge to see what had hit the rocks below.
As a Pole, her ability to distinguish between the reality of Nazi power and its outward appearance wasn’t especially remarkable; what made her extraordinary was that she possessed the courage to act on it, notwithstanding the consequences. She had the singular vision and tenacity of purpose of someone who was impressed with the truth of what she was doing, and who had no dread of consequences. Thus, she conquered every fear out of necessity. She subdued every weakness by simply understanding that we can do all things if we will.
For decades the enormity of her actions lay hidden from wider public attention. It remained just one of many footnotes in a period of history awash with yarns. But I suppose recognition and acclaim themselves are not impactful, merely an echo of actions which may or may not have been. Irena to her eternal credit saying: “Every child saved with my help is the justification of my existence on this Earth, and not a title to glory”. Her heroism was matched only by her humility.
Still, justice did eventually prevail. Her story was picked up in one of the most unlikely places: a high school in Kansas. The students were so struck with her story they were inspired to write a play based on her life. ‘Life in a Jar’ was such a phenomenal success that it spilled out of Kansas and propelled the now the 90-year-old great-grandmother to national attention. In a hyper-individualistic generation starved of heroism, and one rightly mindful of the historical suppression of female empowerment, it was such that, in the years following the play’s premiere in 1999, Irena Sendler was in high demand. She achieved such fame that a movement began that aimed to put her name forward for the Nobel Peace Prize. And so it came to be that at 97 years young Irena Sendler was nominated for the 2007 addition.
She didn’t win.
The prize instead was shared by Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for their work in raising public awareness to the dangers of rising greenhouse gas emissions. It seems the world is faced with a new great peril; one that poses an existential threat to every living thing on this planet. Evidently, the Nobel panel thought that this “climate emergency” was more current than the astonishing heroism of a Polish woman 65 years previous and thus, more deserving of the accolade.
Time has been kinder to Mr Gore than it has to the wild predictions he made in his 2006 film, ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, which led to him being awarded the Peace Prize. They’ve proven spurious, alarmist, fantastical; far removed from the mundane reality of the actual temperature readings post 2006. But present needs have seen to it that a collective amnesia has swept over the world of polite opinion, as if it a were a storm purifying scrutiny, as well as apparently resetting the doomsday clock. Mr Gore and his backers have emerged from this storm quite unscathed. Some of the critics, however, must always be braced for backlash, often facing slurs against which there is little recourse, an inhibiting factor which dissuades many from entering the fray.
Like many high-profile people, Mr Gore, in spite of his proud claims of being carbon neutral, regularly uses private jets. What he really means by “carbon neutral” is that he ‘offsets’ his emissions – compensating for his extensive carbon footprint by donating money to reduce emissions elsewhere. One wonders about the efficacy of ‘carbon offsets’, which can take up to 30 years to take effect, in a world “on the brink of environmental collapse”. But carbon offsets are essentially a rich man’s fancy. Rich being the operative word. Mr Gore’s investment company, Generation Investment Management, which sells carbon offset opportunities, is the largest shareholder of the Chicago Climate Exchange (CCX). His estimated worth is $325 million. Most of which he’s accrued since leaving party politics and taking on the mantle of international climate change guru.
From such a position, when he speaks of the common good, you should immediately feel a haughtiness and coldness in the air, as if he were an imposing statue made of metal, high above the day-to-day affairs of ordinary people.
The Nobel Peace Prize was steeped in irony in 2007. In fact, it’s steeped in irony every year. Alfred Nobel, the benefactor behind the Prizes which takes his name, made his many millions from his invention of dynamite, the manufacture of war munitions and from his family’s investment in oilfields along the Caspian Sea. At the time of his death, his business, one of the principal suppliers of both sides during the Crimean War, had established more than 90 armaments factories. Mr Nobel was as hypocritical in life as he is in death. Said to be an unassuming pacifist, he bequeathed his entire estate to institute the Nobel Prize, which, according to an impressive bronze plaque I remember seeing at the ‘Nobelmuseet’ in Stockholm, was “for his legacy”.
It is true that in lionizing things – people, groups, institutions – we’ll assume the presence of qualities that are in fact not often to be found in them. Take honesty. It may seem inconceivable that large numbers of people could be involved, say, in a movement ridden with lies. But this a childish misapprehension, which assumes honesty is commensurate with prevalence. Indeed, honesty is one thing and society is another. It’s the same as in farming: the beauty of nature is one thing and the income from fields and crops and animals is something quite different. This also has its truth, as it were, but only insofar as it profits the farm. And clearly if the pigs discovered that their role was to provide bacon it would jeopardize the whole operation. But as we know, it’s easy to dupe animals which are occupied not by what is but by what it appears to be.
Only animals and idiots are totally sincere. Once civilisation has introduced into life the need for duty and responsibility and economic dependence, and once resources are unevenly distributed, for instance, then sincerity is quite out of place. Yet so many of us go on as if sincerity is that ungovernable force that guides human relations, when all the world tells us, if we start to think for ourselves, that it is a governable force subject to necessity and expediency. If everyone was sincere the present system would quickly fall to rack and ruin. Because plainly there is little room for sincerity in a world where a narrow class of individuals hoard almost all the wealth and resources.
The onward march of humans is to rise above the mental level of the generation before them. And the onward march of democracy is one that moves inexorably toward reform of a system of extreme inequality. Because such inequality breeds resentment, which must constantly therefore be co-opted by those with everything to protect. Power and authority has always presented narrow interest to be in the wider interest. It doesn’t take more than a cursory glance at history to establish this basic axiom.
Social organisation depends entirely on the goals of the system and the individual characters of the rulers. A competitive and avaricious system regulated by the winners clearly holds latent dangers. In theory, therefore, one should not yield to the edicts from on high before a thorough examination of their content.
Indeed, surrendering personal judgement is attended with reduced consciousness, and obedience, the partial sleep of thought, amounts to the gradual submergence of our own personality by another, which could indeed be an abusive spouse or an abusive political system. In the latter case, we find that this isn’t the exception but the norm. In fact, it’s the glue in social cohesion. So, for depressingly large numbers of people, authority’s ideas will be their ideas. If it thought Jews were an inferior race and posed an existential threat to the German people, they thought the same. If it believes the world is on the brink of environmental collapse because of carbon emissions, so do they. And how are we to forestall this pending catastrophe? By increased taxation and the further centralisation of resources.
The introduction of every new financial liability, under present conditions, merely serves the cause of entanglement in a system controlled by a wealthy class. The people are entangled in a great chain, and when you introduce new impediments and restrictions you are not cutting through the chain but entangling them still more by addition. New standards increase the number of needs, on top of those that already exist. Control comes closely on the back of needs, and power comes closely on the back of control. We really don’t have to follow that many breadcrumbs to understand who benefits from an increasing financialization of the economy.
We are apparently sitting on the verge of a precipice; but this, immediately, instead of being a call to action, should be a reason for circumspection. The claims of establishment science, detached from accurate, testable predictions, are too closely pressed upon by necessity to be prudent. Its pervasiveness inducing a kind of mania that has turned many a nation wild. In history, without exception, all points of uniform extremity have more than a hint of menace. With perhaps no better example than what took place during Nazi Germany. We should therefore take our lessons from the past and be ever watchful that we are not consumed by the folly with which all ages unfold.
Al Gore is one of a small class of people who’ve not been discouraged from combining the so-called climate emergency with personal pecuniary advancement. Nor is he, for that matter, inhibited by any sense of false modesty. Whereas Irena Sendler was a paradox of great humility in the matter of her accomplishments merged with great ferocity in the matter of her virtue. I would suggest, therefore, that a Nobel Peace Prize means much to the character of the former, and little to the character of the latter.
Moreover, it should be obvious by now that awards – especially prestigious awards – are not awarded for moral qualities or even abilities, but for service to the arbiters. As in journalism, they are explicitly a political job. In fact, it’s the same in all fields that have the capacity for a large audience. The primary purpose is to push cultural orthodoxies. And since most mass media outlets are owned by a handful of mega-corporations, it’s very easy for an elite to saturate the airwaves with a specific message.
Society is set up for us to follow and glorify leaders who’re often least deserving of exaltment, while those who are most deserving can be neglected and sometimes even, chastised. No matter. Truth and goodness always shine. Similarly, though a cloud and shower may pass by, the sun is behind, always existing. In such a dishonest and cruel world, then, where truth and goodness can remain hidden, for morality to have any real meaning, it is this: to live a virtuous life even when you know nobody is watching.
The world is more tolerable for all of us if we’re witness to the kindness in others. It’s infectious. Each kind act can and will multiply exponentially; its lasting effect, which is invariably unseen and unheard, can hardly be tabulated. Take Irena’s case. Her father was a physician who raised her to love and respect all people irrespective of their ethnicity or social status. When she was 7 a typhus epidemic broke out in some of the poorest Warsaw districts. Irena’s father risked his life to treat the afflicted, the only doctor in the area to do so. He was one of many to cruelly succumb to the disease. As he lay dying, Irena later recounted, he told her, “If you see someone drowning, you must jump in and try and save them, even if you don’t know how to swim”.
She didn’t forget.
After his death, the Jewish community in Warsaw, many of whom had been treated by Irena’s father, offered her mother financial assistance. She proudly declined the offer, though one feels that Irena certainly took notice of the gesture.
Again, she didn’t forget.
We can all be delicate and sickly to painful impressions. Children are particularly susceptible. The pictures, ideas and conceptions of character assimilated into the mind of the child, are destined to be reproduced in deeds many years afterwards. What the Jewish children of the ghettos went through can scarcely be imagined. A piece of suffering stamped into their very existence. But Irena was at least an unfading light in the darkness. Not only did she help save their lives, but through her courage and compassion, she had shown them, in the midst of evil, humanity at its very best.
Though the history books haven’t recorded much of her exploits, they were certainly memorable enough for those whose lives she touched.
Irena’s story is one that should make each individual conscious of his or her powers as a complete moral being. That in service to others an otherwise ordinary person can achieve the extraordinary. Changing the world for the better one act of kindness at a time.
Events in history may be closer than we think.