The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler

What a terrific role, wonderful actress.

Heroic. One of the more sung heroes now, thanks to CBS and Hallmark.

And these are the Desperate Housewives, who really don't belong on the same page as Irena Sendler, but well, you'll see. Nicolette Sheridan, far right, plays Edie Britt.

I know I promised you something on exposure therapies, but something came up and I had to tell you about it. And it’s ironic, of course, because it’s about the Holocaust, and if ever a population suffered from post traumatic stress, one of the disorders we use exposure therapies to ameliorate, survivors of the Holocaust qualify.

And yet, exposure therapies, I believe, might be over the top for Holocaust survivors, cruel and maladaptive. But I'll explain all that another day. I could be wrong though, I really could. I'm not the expert here, not on Holocaust survivors.

Tomorrow, April 21, 2009 is Holocaust Remembrance Day.

So let’s use this time to remember, just a little.


This one has nothing to do with the Holocaust. If you’ve been watching my sidebar then you see me Twitter every once in a while. I don’t do it much, like I don’t blog all that much lately, but every now and again I get the urge to tweet.

My tweets have been about preparing for a Jewish holiday, mainly about how labor intensive it is, Passover. We change over all of the kitchen utensils and appliances in the house, use different dishes, different silverware, different everything, old sets of things that feel new because they are set aside year after year, not used at all, save this one holiday.

We clean the whole house from top to bottom and
the work part, if you're not familiar with it, the preparation, is spring cleaning with an attitude, reminds us of slavery in Egypt, for sure, and is all about leavening, and getting it out of the system, mental, mainly, although most of us bread lovers complain about the matzah substitute. But complaining is in our nature, and for eight days, we can and should live without something, something like leavening.

The more observant among us take off as much time as we can from our jobs to celebrate when the holiday finally arrives, definitely the first and last two days and the Sabbath in the middle. But it is laudable to take off all eight of those days, because, you know, let's talk, it's a waste not to celebrate a perfectly good festival.

So in my house, this year, like every year usually, Passover passed uneventfully. Passover comes, it goes, and life goes on. But as we’re getting our lives back to normal, changing back from the Passover dishes to the every day dishes, putting things away, FD can’t help but notice that one of our sets of silverware is looking a little yellow.

The silver plate's looking a little yellow, he tells me.

It’s not pretty, yellowing silver plate. I can assure you.

Silver plate flatware isn’t all that expensive, not much more than stainless steel, if at all, but when you shine it up, it looks like real silver. And I happen to be a real sucker for shiny things, shine things up as a general rule. Like I don't mind doing dishes, or washing glassware, or silverware. And you know my world view tends to get a little glossy at times.

If you read this blog regularly then you also know that a lot of us find it therapeutic to shine things up. You don’t have to be OCD to like things clean, we're talking literally now. On the other hand, you might be.

Anyway, I told FD that indeed I had noticed that the silverware needed polishing, but didn’t want to do it just then. There would be a good time, there always is. Story End.

Then tonight, wouldn't you know, ready to polish up the post on exposure therapies, CBS features a Hallmark presentation, a present, really, The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler. Irena Sendler, who just passed away at 98 in May, 2008, was a Christian social worker in Germany during the second world war.

There haven’t been all that many TV shows or made for TV movies about social workers. When I was a kid George C. Scott played one on East Side West Side, and more recently, Tyne Daly played a tough cookie, a social worker with chutzpah and heart on Judging Amy. I loved the show, but most people probably didn’t.

There’s a nice treatment of social workers in the media by Robert DeLauro, MSW in Social Work Today. Not terribly flattering, to tell you the truth, pre Judging Amy, for sure.

But never in a million years would I have known about social worker Irena Sendler were it not for this teledrama. Sure, it’s Hollywood--gorgeous movie stars play regular, probably not so gorgeous people, but the sets seemed real to me, and that scene where the kid punches a hole through the floor of a moving rail car and drops to the tracks to face life alone (or so he thinks) in the wintry woods of Poland, now THAT’S good television.

But basically it's a made for TV production that serves its purpose, sucks the tears right out of you, unless you have no heart.

But we should cry for such things.

I’ll admit it was a tough choice. A really key new episode of Desperate Housewives, serious competition, especially since I wasn’t sure I had the stomach for a Holocaust movie this evening. Who ever does?

And yet how could I not watch it? I feel the survivor guilt of any decent liberal. If I’m not suffering, then why not?

I like to think that having been born in the fifties, those years following the destruction of six to ten million or more innocents by monsters, for there is no other word, I’m sorry, to describe the Nazis, that after the war the soul of an innocent Jew, one who suffered and didn’t make it out of Europe in the early 40's, who didn’t survive, somehow got recycled into my zygote, ultimately this ol' bod. That may sound crazy, but the timing is just right.

And timing, as you know, is everything.

And this being two days prior to Holocaust Remembrance Day, having to choose between Irena’s courageous heart and Edie Britt’s electrocution in an automobile accident on Desperate, well, really, it wasn't a contest. The electrocution might have upset me too, come to think of it.

Ms. Sendler, it turns out, is more than your basic do-gooder social worker. In 1939 she's the director of Polish Social Services in Warsaw but considers the children in the Warsaw ghetto, rationed down to 300 calories a day by the Germans, her cause.

Her own mother worries about her safety, begs Irena to pick another cause.

Irena: I have to save these children.

Mom: You are a social worker a good social worker. Why go risking everything for something you know nothing about?

Irena: If you see a man drowning, you have to try to rescue him even if you don’t know how to swim.

Convincing her mother isn’t all that tough, but convincing Jewish parents to let their children go, well, that's quite another matter.

Irena: The new camp the Germans are building for deportation. . . Treblinka. . .they. . .

Jewish mother in the Warsaw ghetto: It is a concentration camp, a work camp.

Irena: They’re not building any barracks for this camp.

Jewish father in the ghetto: Why wouldn’t they build barracks? I don't understand.

Irena: Treblinka is a place for killing. It is a death camp. There won’t be a need for beds.

Ultimately these protective parents get the idea that it is better to take your chance on the kindness of strangers than to trust the Nazis.

So Tuesday is Holocaust Remembrance Day. We’ll observe a moment of silence, remember things like when we hear words like genocide, that we should wake up, pay attention. DO something. Give money to our local Simon Wiesanthal Center my Uncle Max would like that, or the Holocaust Museum in D.C., something that gives memory its due.

We should be a little more like Ms. Sendler, irrepressible, righteous, brave. Contemplate, at least, what it must be like to be someone like her. Wonder about that.

FD and my son talk a little, after the show, about what they have just seen, the dramatization, their thoughts about that nomination Irena Sendler received for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, having lost the prize to Al Gore. How must he feel?

I saunter out of the family room to the kitchen, get up on a chair and find the silver polish. Not that I'm anything like Golda Meir, the first female Prime Minister of Israel, but it's what she would do, I'm pretty sure, under the circumstances. They say she polished silverware when she got depressed.*

Makes sense to me.


*I'm not depressed, I'm really not. But one day, long ago, having heard that story about Ms. Meir, it changed my whole way of thinking about silver and polishing. Not that I don't farm out the job to an available man now and again. Technically, it is a guy job. For the record.

More facts about Ms. Sendler from the Internet. I understand Snopes argues a few of them.

These are from Life in A Jar, the Irena Sendler Project. ,

As early as 1939, when the Germans invaded Warsaw, Irena began helping Jews by offering them food and shelter.

The Warsaw Ghetto, built in 1940, was the size of New York’s Central Park. Four hundred fifty thousand Jews were forced to live there.

When the Warsaw Ghetto was erected in 1940, Irena could no longer help isolated Jews. The Ghetto was an area the size of New York's Central Park and 450,000 Jewish people were forced into this area.

Irena and the ten who went with her into the ghetto, used many, many methods to smuggle children out. There were five main means of escape: 1- using an ambulance a child could be taken out hidden under the stretcher. 2 - escape through the courthouse. 3 - a child could be taken out using the sewer pipes or other secret underground passages. 4- A trolley could carry out children hiding in a sack, in a trunk, a suitcase or something similar. 5 - if a child could pretend to be sick or was actually very ill, it could be legally removed using the ambulance. The number of babies saved was small in relation to the total number of children rescued.

There was a church next to the ghetto, but the entrance leading to it was "sealed" by the Germans. If a child could speak good Polish and rattle off some Christian prayers it could be smuggled in through the "sealed" entrance and later taken to the Aryan side. This was very dangerous since Germans often used a rouse to trick the Poles and then arrest Jolanta/Irena documented on the strips of paper she had buried, as well as where the child was taken in the first phase of its escape.

Irena (code name Jolanta) was arrested on October 20, 1943. She was placed in the notorious Piawiak prison, where she was constantly questioned and tortured. During the questioning she had her legs and feet fractured.

The German who interrogated her was young, very stylish and spoke perfect Polish. He wanted the names of the Zegota leaders, their addresses and the names of others involved. Irena fed him the version that she and her collaborators had prepared in the event they were captured. The German held up a folder with information of places, times and persons who had informed on her. She received a death sentence. She was to be shot. Unbeknown to her, Zegota had bribed the German executioner who helped her escape. On the following day the Germans loudly proclaimed her execution. Posters were put up all over the city with the news that she was shot. Irena read the posters herself.

During the remaining years of the war, she lived hidden, just like the children she rescued. Irena was the only one who knew where the children were to be found. When the war was finally over, she dug up the bottles and began the job of finding the children and trying to find a living parent.

Almost all the parents of the children Irena saved, died at the Treblinka death camp.


JJ said…
I learned a fun trick on polishing silver that really works from my mother-in-law. You put a sheet of aluminum foil at the bottom of your sink, fill the sink 1/3 full or so with warm water and mix in 1/2 cup of liquid Tide detergent. Then put in all your silver that needs shining, and just leave it for at least 5 minutes (10 probably better). Then just wash with soap/water to get the soap scum off. Seriously, it gets all the tarnish off.

Anyway, I know, silver polishing was not the take home message of the post, but just had to share.
therapydoc said…
But maybe it was. What kind of sink? Stainless steal? Porcelain? Granite? I bet it makes a difference.
JJ said…
I have a porcelain sink, and so does my m-i-l, so I know it works in that!
blognut said…
Ah, there you are, TD. I hope you had a good holiday, we've missed you around here. (Where 'we' is defined as 'me' and I should let the others speak for themselves.)

Great post - I've learned something here again today.

Be well :0)
therapydoc said…
ach, stainless. On the other hand, STAINLESS!
Anonymous said…
Israeli gal

Yom Ha shoa
sad sad day
Retriever said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
therapydoc said…
Sad, but it's not something we bury. Learn from history or repeat it, I think is the message.
Anonymous said…
Israeli gal

Im not sure that those who survived need a yom a shoa to remember their famalies.
They remember everyday
every minute.

I know that Yom a shoa was tribbly difficult for my grandparents who lost most of their famalies.
Especialy My Savta (grandmother).

Yom ha shoa is a very difficult day for those who survived(and those who are second and third generation to survivors)
therapydoc said…
Sorry if I sounded short, meant no disrespect. Of course you're 100% right.
Jew Wishes said…
I wrote a post Sunday on Irena Sendler, and then one today.

The film was wonderful, Anna Paquin has matured into an excellent actress.

Irena Sendler...what can one say to pay her the perfect tribute and honor that she deserves. Words are not adequate enough.

To think, the Nobel Peace Prize Committee nominated her in 2007, but didn't award her the prize...shame on them.

Let us remember her today, tomorrow and always.
Ella said…
I'm not Jewish, but I will never forget - the Holocaust touched my family too. I visited Poland in 1986 - saw Auschwitz with my own eyes. My dad piloted a B-17 to drop bombs on Germany in WWII. My brother-in-law's mom came to the US at 20 - her sister had a mental illness and was eliminated by the Nazis because of this imperfection.
Debbie said…
I meant to set my DVR to record the special, but I forgot about it. I bet they will show it again.

Debbie Hamilton
Right Truth
Anonymous said…
On Israeli tv today they interviewed a survivor and her son. She remarked that yes, she doesn't need a reminder, she lives with it everyday, but it means so much to her that the entire country is for one day remembering together with her. The rest of the year she remembers in solitude, which is hard.

Cat said…
I will look for this - it sounds like a stunning womans life.