Experience teaches that you can't expect to achieve much without becoming active for your cause. It's always possible to expect the "other guy" to do something but when we're prepared to take on the responsibility of going out into the trenches and getting involved, we can expect to see results.
One episode that brings that lesson home involves the recent identification of a Righteous Gentile who had been all but forgotten by her own country as well as by the Jewish community. She lived in anonymity until a group of non-Jewish schoolgirls tenaciously researched her story and brought it to light.
In 1999, for a school assignment, four Uniontown Kansas high school students decided to Life in a Jar, which was turned into a website, a book and a performance which continues to inspire audiences and readers throughout the world. It also led the establishment of the Lowell Milken Center that promotes projects about other unknown heroes.
Irena Sendler was a young Polish social worker when the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939. She joined the Zagota underground resistance group and assisted numerous Jews who were fleeing the Germans by providing them with false papers and hiding places. Due to her position as an employee of the Warsaw Social Services she was able to obtain a travel pass that allowed her to pass into the Warsaw ghetto where almost half a million Jews were trapped without sufficient food or other necessities.
Sendler envisioned her job as one of smuggling food and medicines into the ghetto but she quickly realized that this was only a drop in the bucket, compared to the needs of the desperate people. Together with her Zagota comrades she devised a plan that would enable her to smuggle children out of the ghetto -- sedating the youngest children and hiding them under garbage on garbage carts, inside toolboxes and luggage and under tram seats and guiding older children out through underground tunnels and through sewers.
At the beginning she brought out street children but as time went by she began to go door to door to try and convince parents to allow her to smuggle their children out of the ghetto. These meetings were traumatic, both for Sendler, who was taking responsibility for someone else's children, and for the parents who were forced to decide whether their children would have a better chance at life if they were taken out of the ghetto without their families.
When the Kansas schoolgirls started their project in 1999 Sendler was still alive and during interviews she described how difficult her mission had been. "I talked the parents out of their children" she remembered. “Those scenes over whether to give a child away were heart-rending. Sometimes, they wouldn’t give me the child. Their first question was, ‘What guarantee is there that the child will live?’ I said, ‘None. I don’t even know if I will get out of the ghetto alive today.”
Following each child's removal from the ghetto the Zagota members would work feverishly to find a place where the child could be hidden. Some children were hidden in convents or orphanages while others were secured with sympathetic Polish families. In many of the cases the children needed false documents and Zagota supplied these papers.
Sendler recorded the names and hiding places of each child on a strip of tissue paper. She placed these pieces of paper in glass jars and buried the jars in her garden, hoping that, after the war, the children could be reunited with family members.
In October 1943, shortly after the Nazis liquidated the ghetto, the Germans arrested Sendler. They brought her to the Piawiak prison and tortured her but Sendler didn't reveal any information about the children, their whereabouts or her Zagota comrades. The Germans sentenced Sendler to death but Zagota was able to bribe a German guard and secure her release. Sendler lived out the remainder of the war in hiding.