Today’s column is about women. Ladies who did some pensive introspection and transformed their thoughts into actions of intrepidity. This means they did some soul searching that ended by taking some action that was bold, courageous and brave. Maybe this sounds fictional but it is real and humbling. It is the stories of women who took great risks to save the lives of others.
World War II is in the far distance of the rear-view mirrors in our brains. Those were the days when many of us weren’t even born yet. WWII was ignited in the late 30’s in central Europe when a person who had been a German Corporal in WWI worked his way into the leadership role of a political throng of soldiers, civilians, children and government workers who succumbed to his overwhelming discipline.
That person was Adolf Hitler whose single minded quest was the awesome nightmare of bringing Nazism to other nations of Europe. In so doing the goal was to rid the world of Jews because they were not Aryans. This meant in general the ‘Nordic’ or ‘Master Race’ that excluded Jews.
Jews existed in most European countries and were often business people who prospered in Poland, Russia, Germany, Austria and other central European nations. In 1938, German military units annexed Austria and in early 1939 occupied all of Czechoslovakia. In the early hours of September 1, 1939, 1.5 million Nazi troops invaded the 1750 mile border of Poland and reached the 140 miles to Warsaw in one week.
By September 17th, the Polish government surrendered. By 1942, 500,000 Polish Jews were herded into a 16-block area of Warsaw called the ‘Warsaw Ghetto.’ What these people didn’t know was that their date with death was sealed for Hitler had built six ‘death (extermination) camps’ in Poland. These installations were Auschwitz-Birkenau, Bel?ec, Chelmno, Maydanek, and Sobibór & Treblinka.
Conditions in the ‘ghetto’ were abominable and people were dying at the rate of 5,000 each month. Recognizing the plight of the ghetto prisoners, Irena Sendler a senior administrator in the ‘Warsaw Social Welfare Department’ applied for and received a permit to represent The ‘Epidemic Control Department’ and visited the Ghetto daily.
Born in 1910 in Otwock, Poland and less than 5’ tall, she was a miracle worker at picking up children in the Ghetto and taking them out to safety in trucks, caskets and ambulances. She was reported to have saved the lives and identities of more than 2,500 Jewish children. On October 20th 1943, she was arrested by the Gestapo who broke both her legs and arms and was sentenced to death.
Sent to Powiak Prison, friends bribed a prison guard who halted the execution and then she escaped. Although the Gestapo pursued her, she eluded them using an assumed name. In 1965 she was accorded ‘Righteous Among Nations’ by Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and was awarded Poland’s highest distinction, the ‘Order of White Eagle’ on November 10th, 2003. Irena died in Warsaw on May 8th, 2008 at the age of 98.
A Catholic Serbian lady named Klara Bai? who lived in Subotica in northern Serbia agreed to hide Mirko (8) and Paul (11) Deneberg, sons of a dentist who died in Auschwitz. Keeping the boys safe until war’s end, they were reunited with their mother who had survived her stay in a death camp.
Jeanne Daman-Scaglione was a Brussels school teacher who hid Jewish children all over Belgium and being Catholic was able to attract the help of parish priests who found homes to welcome the children, many of whom were orphaned. She was instrumental in saving more than 300 Jewish children. There is not enough space to tell all the stories of women who, not Jews themselves, saved the lives of Jewish children and adults at the risk of imprisonment, torture and even death. Here is an Honor Roll of other women who made the sacrifice:
Johanna Eck, Germany; Antonina Gordey, Belarus; Lois Gunden, Indiana, U.S.A.; Anna Igumnova, Slovakia, Russia; Karolina Juszczykowska, Poland; Bronislava Krištopavi?ien?, Lithuania; Sofia Kritikou, Greece; Caecilia Loots, Netherlands; Ludviga Pukas, Ukraine; Susanne Spaak, France; Sofka Skipwith, Russia & UK; Elisabeta Strul, Romania and Maria Agnese Tribbioli, Italy.
War brings death and destruction; yet some unsung heroines are still able to turn fear into introspection and intrepidity.