It’s an intimate affair between the stage and the audience. The dimmed lights cast a soft golden hue throughout the small sectioned-off area of the Rogalski Center Ballroom. In the front and center of the room, the stage is empty except for a table big enough to seat two, but with only one chair. There is a small black toolbox, a single white rose, and a few jars filled with papers resting on the white-laced tablecloth.
A woman enters the room from a front side door. Her blond bob is slightly curled around her face, and the navy blue hat resting on her head matches her navy blue ensemble. Her sweater is covered with pearls around her collar, drawing attention to her blue and white polka dot scarf. Judy Winnick makes her way towards the stage using her cane for support. The murmuring audience quiets down and looks on attentively, watching Winnick get into character. She’s a retired teacher who received a Colorado Distinguished Teachers Award, and is now continuing to teach by traveling across the nation role-playing important women in history.
On October 5, Winnick came to St. Ambrose University to give Irene Sendler’s message. Sendler died in 2008, but as a Catholic Polish social worker during World War II. She became involved with the Polish Underground and saved about 2,500 Jewish children from the Warsaw ghetto. Winnick’s role play left the audience silenced after learning more about Sendler, who never considered herself a hero. Winnick reached the stage and took a seat, and after taking a sip of tea, she placed a hand on the black toolbox, taking the audience back in time to the life of Sendler.
“For you, this is just a toolbox, but this is a bed,” she said. A baby girl of 6 months was sleeping inside of it as she walked out of the baby’s family apartment, smuggling the child out of the Warsaw Nazis-monitored ghetto. The baby’s family wanted Sendler’s help. They knew their daughter would die if she stayed with them, and with tears in their eyes they gave their most valuable treasure to Sendler, who had found a family the child would be adopted to. It was normal for her to smuggle children out in suitcases, coffins, and even potato sacks. If she was smuggling a baby, then it was her habit of taking a dog with her.
“The older children were good at staying quiet, but the small ones, the babies, we were forced to give them medicine for them to sleep, but babies being babies would sometimes cry and I would step on the dog and the dog knew to bark,” she said.
Sendler was one of the leaders in the Polish Underground, but she worked closely with people from a variety of religions and occupations who had all come together to help the Polish Jews.
“We had some of the best forgers in Europe,” Sendler said.
The children were to sent to Christian homes, convents or orphanages with forged documents and new identities. The children were taught how to speak Polish, how to pray Catholic prayers, and were enrolled in Catechism. Sendler said the Polish underground and herself didn’t want the children to lose their heritage, they simply wanted them to assimilate as Christian children in the public eye because Nazis would raid orphanages trying to find Jew refugees and demanded every child recite the Lord’s Prayer.
During World War II, in Poland, a baptism certificate was a birth certificate, and so many priests who were a part of the underground created fake baptism certificates and gave the children Christian names. It was easier to save girls because boys were circumcised, but they had doctors who were also eager to help and wrote doctor’s notes and certificates stating the child had been circumcised at birth for a medical condition.
Sendler said that before the war, some people in Poland were already prejudice against the Jews. While she was studying to become a social worker, her class seating arrangements were divided between the Christians and the Jews. She would switch sides for every class until a teacher confronted her.
“Today, I am a Jew, I said and I saw the fire in his eyes,” Sendler said.
She considered herself very religious and didn’t approve of the inequalities because she saw everyone as equals and as God’s creation.
He said, “today you can be a Jew, but today you are expelled.” Once the war began, she started to help the Jews with food. As a Catholic woman, Sendler was free to travel in and out of the Warsaw ghetto, but once the Nazis realized she was giving people food she was forbidden access. The doctors who were part of the underground gave her a nurse uniform and medicine.
“I pretended to be a nurse going to distribute medicine to prevent illnesses from infecting the population outside of the ghetto and the Nazis became scared and would allow me to enter, but inside of my coat, clothes and underneath the medicine I carried food,” she said.
Sendler confessed that the hardest thing to do, besides separating children from parents who wanted help, was separating siblings, and in a few circumstances having to move children to different homes. It was all done for their safety, but she still recalls the memory of a 6-year-old boy she was changing into a third home with yet a new identity. The boy cried and asked why this would be the third mom he would have.
“I tried not to cry and I told him he had many mommies because he was so loved,” she said.
The Polish Underground grew, and the amount of their work in the Warsaw ghetto increased. Sendler recalls many Nazi guards who knew what she was doing, but didn’t have the heart to stop her and would simply look away, knowing she was smuggling a child out. But eventually she did get caught, after someone in the Polish Underground had been imprisoned and tortured, they’d given her name. Sendler was also in prison for about four months where she was tortured and had her legs and feet broken. She was sentenced to death, but on her day of execution she was liberated by a Nazi prison guard who had been paid by the Polish Underground for Sendler’s freedom. Upon her return home, she had her identity changed and continued her mission to save as many children as she possibly could.
“Now, when I went into the ghetto, I wore the Star of David on my arm so I could not draw attention, but in my heart I wore the Star of David for the Jews,” she said. Although Sendler won awards such as a Nobel Peace Prize, she never considered herself a hero.
“I did what my heart told me to do,” she said. Her father’s words were an inspiration for her.
“When you see someone drowning, you jump in and save them, don’t even think that you don’t know how to swim,” she said her father used to tell her. Sendler thought the real heroes were the parents who were strong enough to give her their children, who had faith in a complete stranger who would be in charge of their children’s safety.
“I saw a lot of people drowning, and I couldn’t save them all,” she said.
Sendler kept records of every child she saved with their name and where she had sent them to. Her intentions were to give these records to Jewish agencies after the war because she hoped the children would be able to be reunited with their families. Unfortunately, after strenuous investigations, she found out the majority of the children’s families had been executed, and all records of extended families in Israel, Europe, and America were lost. But they were happy to see the children had been adopted by good families who loved them as their own.
Sendler never became involved with the Polish Underground efforts for fame. She said that as a Catholic she felt all people are one and she had a duty.
“Every child I saved is a justification for my life on Earth,” she said.
Although Sendler fought for peace and a better future during the war, that doesn’t mean she’s stopped.
“If you save one life, you save a world,” she said. Leaning forward, closer to the audience who has been silenced by her memories, she looks at everyone in the eye.
“Help me make this a more beautiful world,” she said.