Saturday, July 20, 2013

Strength Grows From Compassion: A Tribute to Irena Sendlerowa

A Catholic social worker in Warsaw during the Nazi occupation of Poland, Irena Sendler risked death on a daily basis as she orchestrated the rescue of children out of the Warsaw Ghetto.
 It is estimated daring rescues she (and her team) orchestrated saved about 2,500 children from near-certain death at the hands of the Nazis in the Treblinka Death Camp.  When caught by the Nazis, Sendler was tortured, crippled, and sentenced to death as a traitor after she refused to name her co-conspirators. Yet, she said, her only regret was that she couldn't have rescued more.

My tribute to Sendler focuses on her role as a Warrior for the Truth Force.  I also ask, what may be learned from her life for application in our own lives, here and now.

Irena Sendlerowa 1942
Photo of Irena Sendlerowa in 1942
courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Sendler's story is a remarkable account of compassion, creativity, courage, and determination that could only have been driven by deep commitment and belief in the rightness of her cause.  Her story is a reminder that bigotry, intolerance, and hate have always been at war with compassion and nonviolence.  Sometimes warriors in the battle between good and evil are called to radical acts.  These acts may defy conventional wisdom within the dominant culture and may also require great courage and personal sacrifice.  What is the force which both impels and gives us strength to carry the staff forward on behalf of good, against great evil?

The English word for "nonviolence" fails to convey the powerful aspect of Truth Force which calls us to be active warriors for the forces of compassion.  In my culture, the word "peace" is sometimes equated with notions of cowardice, compromise, and weakness.  The notion of "nonviolence" is perceived by those within my warrior-worshipping culture as what might impolitely be called a "pansy-ass" response to evil.  Sendler's story demonstrates that there is nothing "weak" about a nonviolent response to evil.  Truth Force (as it was called by Dr. Martin Luther King) leads the nonviolent adherent to confront evil head on, courageously, understanding the risk, and sometimes even knowing that torture or death is likely.

During their torture of Sendler to try and learn the names of people in her network, the Germans broke both her arms and legs.  Then, they dumped her in a forest where she was to be executed.  She was rescued by sympathizers after they bribed the man who had been designated by the Nazis to kill her.  When I read of her courage and sacrifice, I ask myself, "could I, or would I, have had the same courage, under those circumstances?"  I imagine that a much more "normal" or "ordinary" response (as evidenced by most of the population of Warsaw) would have been to keep quiet and save one's self or one's own family, or to resist in ways that did not involve quite so much daring and personal risk.  Where would I have fallen in the continuum of courage?  Although she risked death, Sendlerowa thought she was doing what anyone should have done.   She said of herself, "Heroes do extraordinary things.  What I did was not an extraordinary thing.  It was normal."  (Link from Wikiquotes.)  She denied she was a hero, saying she only wished she could have saved more.

In the era immediately following World War II, much was written about the evil aspect of human nature that leads to bigotry.  There was an effort to understand how an entire people could have been brainwashed or influenced to participate or be complacent about the Nazi scheme to exterminate the Jews and "defective" members of society.  It was asked, "How could this have happened in a Western, civilized country?  How?!!"

Unfortunately, all the scholarly work and all the understanding of how it came to be in Nazi Germany did not resolve the issue.  Bigotry still happens today.  The recent story of George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin, and the widespread reaction in the USA to the not-guilty verdict of the jury in the resulting murder trial, is clear evidence that the evil side of human nature is alive and well.   We stereotype and categorize others according to labels that serve not only to identify, but also to dehumanize, each other.  In every community which points a finger at another on the basis of bias, I guarantee that three fingers are pointed backwards.  In my daily life, I hear derogatory stereotypes all the time, and not just regarding skin color or religious affiliation.  What about the terms "libtards" or "teabaggers"?  There is always a need for inner reflection.  There is always a need to remember the dangers of the dark abyss into which a lack of compassion toward the Other leads.

I close this blog post with a quote from an obituary that appeared in UK Daily Mail:

 A few months before she died, she [Sendler] said: "After World War II, it seemed that humanity understood something, and nothing like that would happen again.
"Humanity has understood nothing. Religious, tribal, national wars continue. The world continues to be in a sea of blood."  
But she added: "The world can be better if there's love, tolerance and humility."  
Irena Sendler had all three in abundance.

From the obituary at:
*Sources HERE (UK Daily Mail obituary) and HERE (Holocaust history) tell more facts about her remarkable story.  An online obituary is HERE.  Another remarkable aspect of Sendler's life story is that she received little recognition in her own homeland for her work until four school children in Kansas learned of and publicised her life story in their school history project and play, "Life in a Jar."  A book about her life and this "rediscovery" after years of suppression of information about her may be purchased on Amazon by clicking on the picture below:

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