Irena Sendler award presented for first time

Irena Sendler, photo:

Irena Sendler is one of the unsung heroes of World War II. Now 96 years old, she saved 2,500 Jewish children from the Holocaust in Nazi-occupied Poland. The Polish Association of the Children of the Holocaust recently established an award named after this remarkable woman. It is to be presented annually to teachers who have made teaching about the Holocaust their mission. The Irena Sendler awards were recently presented for the first time.

The Polish recipient of the award is Roman Szuchta, a history teacher in one of Warsaw's high schools:

"We cannot stay idle in the face of evil. We have to react to all manifestations of evil around us and, for me and my students, this is the important lesson from the Holocaust."

The other recipient of the Irena Sendler Award is Norman Conard from Kansas, USA. Several years ago, he brought to the attention of his students, [who are] Protestant girls, a Catholic woman from Poland who saved Jewish children. This led to several visits to Poland by American students and the presentation of a documentary play entitled "Life in a Jar."

Why the title? Irena Sendler kept the only record of the identities of the children in jars buried beneath a tree in a neighbour's backyard. She hoped she could someday dig up the jars, locate the children and inform them about their past. Norman Conard:

"Irena Sendler touched the future with her life. This award represents an extraordinary person who was so brave and courageous during the Holocaust. For me, there can be no pinnacle higher than to be here today. We've known Irena for many years, and I just feel great joy that I can be in Poland and can share this award with her."

Irena Sendler presented the awards to the two teachers in a private ceremony at her apartment. She was not able to attend the main event hosted by the Polish Foreign Ministry. For spokesman Pawel Dobrowolski, she is among the greatest Poles of our time.

"She is one of those unknown Polish heroes. She deserves to be perhaps as famous as Copernicus and Chopin. Even more, perhaps, because she risked her life for something that was not wholly acceptable, even within Polish society. People watch Schindler's List and they think that this was the ultimate sacrifice. Her sacrifice and the things she had done go further and much beyond that."

Renata Skotnicka-Zajdman traveled all the way from Montreal to attend the ceremony:

Irena Sendler
"I survived the Warsaw Ghetto thanks to the Zegota Organization and Irena Sendler's friends. She worked in a climate of hate, indifference and hostility, and she was working when honesty was a crime and decency was punished. She is still my hero."

For the Rabbi of Poland, Michael Schudrich, Irena Sendler helped save the soul of Europe.

"People like Irena Sendler saved the soul of Europe when so many people were quiet. The horror of the Holocaust is that very few people [participated], but many people were silent. Irena Sendler was never silent."

After the war, Irena Sendler dug up the jars and used the notes to track down the 2,500 children she placed with adoptive families in order to reunite those children with their relatives. Most of the children had lost their families in Nazi death camps.

Though pursued by the Gestapo, Irena Sendler miraculously survived the war. Her war-time children visit her often and are delighted to find her in good form.