Remembering Irena Sendler
In 1999, three students from a small town in Kansas USA, as part of a school project, prepared a performance of “Life in a Jar”. It told the story of a woman who led children out of the Warsaw Ghetto. It was a great success. Two years later, Megan and Sabrina visited their hero in Poland. Thanks to these Americans, Poles discovered Irena Sendler.
Today, in Poland, there is no shortage of commemorations of Irena Sendler. They take various forms – from the naming of streets, squares and streets in her honour, through awards in her name, the painting of murals, to coins and stamps and even a species of tulip. These initiatives also have an official character – state or local government – as well as grassroots. Her character both unites and inspires. Commemorations have increased significantly due to the current “Year of Irena Sendler”. In February 2018, on the occasion of Irena Sendler’s 108th birthday, the event was celebrated with the illumination of the Presidential Palace.
“A school is the most beautiful monuments”, stresses Janina Zgrzembska, the Righetous’ daughter. Irena Sendler is the patron of several dozen institutions in Poland and around the world.
In 2007, the first school to be named in Irena Sendler’s honour was Gimnazjum No. 23 in Warsaw. The building has a hall which contains exhibits and documents relating to its patron, as well as the work of students inspired by her story. Classes are conducted there which are devoted to the history of World War II and to the Righteous Among the Nations.
In 2010, on Sendler’s 100th birthday, this school hosted the first conference of “Sendler schools”. In a letter to conference participants, President Lech Kaczyński wrote, “If (…) you see that someone is suffering or is being treated unfairly, do not be afraid to respond. Remember the words of Irena (Sendler) that, when someone is drowning, we need to help that person – regardless of race, religion or nationality. May she be an example to you on how to overcome indifference”.
In 2016, POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews hosted the third conference – which had an international character. Participants represented more than thirty schools from Poland, Mexico, Germany and Great Britain.
Irena Sendleris the patron of two awards.
Each year, the Centre for Civic Education, together with the Children of the Holocaust Association in Poland, presents awards to teachers. “Repairing the World” award winners are acknowledged for:
– teaching in a spirit of dialogue, tolerance and respect for others,
– inspiring students to act in accordance with these principles,
– playing an active role in the school and in the local community.
In 2006, the first winner was personally selected by Irena Sendler. The award was created by people active in multi-cultural dialogue, including Elżbieta Ficowska, Paula Sawicka and Robert Szuchta. Chairman Krzysztof Czyżewski describes candidates as those who possess the virtues of Irena Sendler – courage combined with organisational skills, empathy and the ability to be self-critical while still persevering in their actions.
The Taube Foundation for Jewish Life and Culture’s Irena Sendler Award was established in 2008. It honours Poles who contribute to the preservation of Jewish heritage and the renewal of Jewish culture in Poland. Winners are selected by Jewish community leaders in Poland. Past winners of the Award include Jan Jagielski, Maria Janion and Bogdan Białek.
In the public space
An “Ulica Irena Sendlerowa” can be found in Iława, Gdańsk, Ostrołęka, Lublin, Bytom, Gorzów Wielkopolski, Kielcech, Białystok, Bielsko-Biała and Zielona Góra. On 15th May 2013, an avenue in her name was open in the Warsaw district of Muranów, between POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews and the Ghetto Heroes Memorial. Participants in the ceremony included Polish President Bronisław Komorowski, Władysław Bartoszewski, Warsaw Mayor Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz and Janina Zgrzembska.
The capital also contains two memorial plaques in her honour. The first, unveiled on her 100th birthday, came about at the initiative of residents and the local government of the district of Ochota. It is located on the wall of the clinic at 2 Pawińska Street (formerly known as Opaczewska). In the 1930’s, this building contained the Civic Committee for Social Welfare, where Sendler worked in the Mothers and Children’s Aid Section. In 2015, at the initiative of the Wola Residents Association, as well as the Ludwika 6 Residents Association, a plaque was placed onto the building in which Sendler lived until 1943. A plaque dedicated to her was also placed on the wall of the tenement at al. 3 Maja 14 in Piotrków Trybunalski, where she grew up in the 1920’s.
Since 2014, the Fundacja Klamra, whose aim is to promote diversity and activity in its promotion, commissioned a series of murals. The wall mounted paintings present Irena Sendler as an example. It is a social initiative building a network of people, organisations and institutions – creating a community. The first mural went up on the wall of a tenement in Bielsko-Biała. Others have been placed in Cieszyn and Kraków .
Coins and stamps
On 2nd December 2009, the National Bank of Poland issued a silver collectors’ coin with the image Irena Sendler, in its series “Poles Who Saved Jews”. 100,00 coins were issued, each with a face value of 20 zł.
In March this year, the Polish Post issued a series of stamps marking the “Year of Irena Sendler”. 100,000 were issued. Sever years ago, Israel postal authorities also issued a series of stamps dedicated to the Righteous.
Irena Sendler also has her own species of tulip. The red flower with a yellow spot on the bottom was grown by Jan Lighart of the Netherlands. Resistant to diseases, pests and frosts, it blooms for a very long time. The idea of naming it after Irena Sendler came from Alicja Bromberger Kobus, chairwoman of the Poznań branch of the Union of Jewish Communities in Poland.
Karolina Dzięciołowska / English translation: Andrew Rajcher, May 2018
Among other subjects, we present her co-workers and people who survived the Holocaust thanks to her help.
We also present commemorations held in her honour in Poland and in Israel,
as well as Irena Sendler memorabilia from POLIN Museum collection.