You might call Elzbieta’s entire life a miracle. She was born Jewish in Nazis-occupied Poland. With hindsight, we know her chances of survival were close to zip.
The Nazi’s forced Warsaw’s Jews, 400,000 people, nearly a third of the city’s population, into a space of sixteen blocks and barricaded them behind 7-foot walls, guarded by soldiers. Called the Warsaw Ghetto, it became a holding pen for the Treblinka death camp.
Each month baby Elzbieta clung to life in the Ghetto, five thousand others perished from sickness and starvation. Anyone caught helping a Jew to escape would be shot, moreover, their entire family would be shot. In this desperate situation, that surely seemed hopeless, up sprang Zegota, the underground Polish resistance.
In July of 1942, when Elzbiata was six months old, Jolanta came to visit with the child’s mother. There is no record of the conversation between the two young woman, but the result was that Elzbiata was drugged so that she would not cry and placed in a wooden tool box that belonged to a Gentile carpenter. He had a work pass into the Jewish section, and that day when he drove his truck out through the Nazi checkpoint, his tool box of illegal cargo lay hidden under a load of bricks.
“They ask if I can guarantee their safety. I have to answer no….We witnessed terrible scenes. Father agreed, but mother didn't. Sometimes they would give me their child. Other times they would say come back. I would come back a few days later and the family had already been deported. ”
Once outside the gates, the children dropped their Jewish identities and were taken to Roman Catholic convents, orphanages and homes. Irena used every way she could imagine to get the children to safety.
Some were carried out in sacks of potatoes, some sedated in coffins, older children learned Catholic prayers and hymns and were led out through underground corridors where the Polish police had been bribed to allow their passage. Others exited under the floorboards of an ambulance, a barking dog on board to drown their cries.
Danger always lurked close by. One of the children waited by a gate in the dark, counting to 30 after the German soldier on patrol passed, then ran to the middle of the street where a manhole cover mysteriously opened and the boy escaped into the sewers to eventual freedom.
In October 1942,
for the last time.
“She told me, much later, that my birth mother called from time to time on the telephone, and that she would ask that the telephone receiver be passed to me, at least for a moment. She undoubtedly longed for me. Perhaps she wanted to assure herself that I still existed and to hear my babbling... In October 1942, she telephoned for the last time.”
On the night of October 20, 1943, the Gestapo pounded on Irena's door. They took her Pawiak prison and asked her to implicate the others in her network and to give up the children’s identities. She refused, and was tortured, repeatedly, the bones in her legs and feet broken, her body scarred. Finally, she was sentenced to death. At nearly the last minute Zegota was able to bribe a German guard, who listed Irena as executed and left her in the woods. Irena lived in hiding until the end of the war.
At that time, she hoped to reunite the children with their families. She had kept a complete list of all 2,500 Jewish children and their new identities. She buried them in jars under a tree in a neighbor's yard across the street from the German barracks. Most of the parents, however, had been gassed at Treblinka.
Life coming full circle in a what may seem a miracle, but is an event that stemmed from Irena's great courage and willingness to risk her own life to help save others. Irena explained it like this, "We who were rescuing children are not some kind of heroes. That term irritates me greatly. The opposite is true – I continue to have qualms of conscience that I did so little. I could have done more. This regret will follow me to my death."
For decades, Irena lived in obscurity until a 1999 project based learning assignment at a high school in Kansas. For more about the young women who brought this heroine to the attention of the world, watch a video here...
For a two-minute video including an interview with Irena click here...
Irena learned compassion from her father, one of the first Polish socialists and a Catholic physician. Many of his patients were poor Jews. When a typhus epidemic broke out in 1917, he was the only doctor willing to Jews. He contracted the disease. His dying words to seven-year-old Irena were...
"If you see someone drowning, you must jump in and try to save them, even if you don't know how to swim."
Sometimes what seems miraculous is a phenomenon of human courage and compassion. I'd love to hear what you think. Please leave a comment below.
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