Selfless gestures always go unnoticed

Published 10:37 am Monday, August 25, 2008

All too often the biggest things done by unassuming people are disregarded.

The other day I received an e-mail from a friend and co-worker, which at first glance could have been written off as just your run of the mill viral e-mail of the day.

However, after reading this one, I came to the conclusion this e-mail was any thing but that.

The e-mail told the story of Irena Sendler, who was up for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007.

Among the several nominees Sendler was up against (the award has seen up to 199 nominees in one year) was Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the eventual winners).

By far, I am not putting down the work Gore has done in concern to climate change. In fact, I feel comfortable in saying he can be considered a man of many accomplishments. After all, he has been a soldier, a journalist, vice president, presidential candidate and political activist.


But the difference between Gore’s and Sendler’s life and accomplishments is about as vast as a canyon.

Gore, by all means, is a political figure known all around the world while Sendler was a humanitarian who did what was right and changed the world without knowing it.

Sendler, a Polish Roman Catholic, made her mark more than 60 years ago while she was living in her homeland.

In 1939, German Nazis began their invasion of Poland and seizing the country’s Jewish citizens. Sendler, who was also social worker, jumped into action, offering refuges food and shelter.

Prior to joining anti-Holocaust group, Zegota, Sendler and her helpers had provided 3,000 false documents to assist Jewish families. Helping Jews during German occupation was risky as many who did this often faced a torturous death.

As the invasion continued, the Nazis establish the Warsaw Ghetto, where Jewish families were “quarantined.” Between the years of 1941 and 1943, the population in the ghetto dropped from approximately 450,000 to 70,000, due to starvation, disease and deportations to concentration and death camps.

After being selected by Zegota to conduct undercover work as a nurse checking Jews for infectious diseases, Sendler began to smuggle children out of the deplorable conditions in the ghetto. This work would ultimately save the lives of 2,500 children.

Sendler had to be creative in her work so the children would not be discovered by Nazi guards. She was known to place babies in tool boxes and older children in potato sacks. She even trained a dog to bark at Nazis when they approached her truck to help stifle the sounds of the young children’s cries.

The children were placed with Roman Catholic families and given forged documents. Zegota assured the return of all children once the occupation was over.

Sendler wrote down the names of each child she smuggled out of the Warsaw Ghetto in a jar buried in her backyard, so when it was safe the children could be reunited with their families. However, many of these reunions never came to be as most of their families were killed in concentration camps.

Sendler’s covert work was discovered by the Gestapo, who arrested her. She was tortured and sentenced to death.

On the way to her execution, Zegota was able to bribe Nazi guards in releasing her. Sendler was found by her fellow Zegota members lying in a wooded area with broken legs and arms.

Sendler passed away this May at the age of 98.

Whew! Whew! Whew! I’m sorry Mr. Gore, but her story takes the cake and should have taken the Nobel Peace Prize.

Amanda VanDerBroek is a Staff Writer for the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald. For comments and column suggestions email: or call (252) 332-7209.