Thursday, February 25, 2010

To Really Love Your Neighbour

Published in the Fiji Times on Wednesday, February 24, 2010

I often receive emails from my friends who forward me interesting or funny stories, inspirational messages or devotional meditations.

Some I read and forward on to others on my emailing list, some I read and delete and some, to be honest, never make past the inbox and are deleted before reading.

I suppose it is just a case of having a full inbox with little time to be online to read everything, so one just goes straight to the work emails.

As I was clearing my emails, I came across one that told the story of a woman who had died at the age of 98 in 2008.

Irena Sendler had been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in the same year but the award went instead to former Clinton vice-president Al Gore for his movie on global warming "An Inconvenient Truth".

I decided to find out more about this woman and why many considered that she not Al Gore should have received the Nobel Peace Prize.

Irena Sendlerowa was a Polish woman who, along with her underground network, rescued 2500 Jewish children in Poland during World War II.

This is not just her story, or the story of the many children that she saved, but also the story of the children who shared her story, firstly with people in their town and then with the rest of the world.

Towards the end of 1999, a rural Kansas teacher encouraged four students to work on a year-long National History Day project which would, among other things, extend the boundaries of the classroom to families in the community, contribute to history learning, teach respect and tolerance, and meet their classroom motto, "He who changes one person, changes the world entire."

Initially only four girls accepted the challenge and decided to enter their project in the National History Day program (although eventually more students were added to the project).

The teacher showed them a short clipping from a March 1994 issue of News and World Report, which said, "Irena Sendler saved 2500 children from the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942-43".

He told the girls the article might be a typographical error, since he had not heard of this woman or story.

The students began their research and looked for primary and secondary sources throughout the year.

The result was a play called "Life in a Jar".

They found that Irena was dismissed from Warsaw University for failing to comply with Jewish segregation laws. She was re-admitted one year later.

She started making false documents for Jewish friends when the war started in 1939. Irena was an administrator at the Warsaw Social Work Department during the war. She posed as a nurse in the ghetto from time to time.

She had a network of helpers (25 at one time) who rescued people (adults and children) from the Warsaw Ghetto, made false papers for them and found hiding.

The majority of the rescue work of taking children out of the Warsaw Ghetto was done in the summer of 1942 in a three-month period.

The most famous of the child survivors, Elzbieta Ficowska, was rescued at five months in a carpenter's box.

The first children they took off the streets were the orphans.

The network used dozens of ways to rescue children, including using a dog on a couple of occasions.

The most common route was through the old courthouse.

The underground group, Zegota, was founded in the fall of 1942; she became the head of the children's division and they would eventually find hiding for 2500 children.

The hiding of Jews in Warsaw would take place in Polish homes, convents and orphanages.

Irena's network of rescuers was almost all social workers, consisting of 24 women and one man.

Irena was caught by the Gestapo and put in Pawiak Prison.

She was tortured and had a leg and foot fractured. She had buried some of the names of the children in jars, along with the help of a friend, to reconnect the children to their Jewish families after the war.

The jars were buried under an apple tree, in the friend's back yard.

The flat of the friend was right across from the German barracks. The daughter of her friend, still lives at the residence.

Zegota bribed a guard to have Irena released in the night to a member of the Underground.

She was scheduled to be executed. She remained in hiding throughout the rest of the war. After World War II, she dug up the bottles and began the job of finding the children and trying to find a living parent. The connecting of children to families was very difficult because of the large number of Jewish adults killed at Treblinka and other death camps.

Almost all the parents of the children Irena saved, died at the Treblinka death camp.

When Irena first heard about the project in Kansas, "I was stunned and fascinated; very, very suprised; interested".

In one of Irena's first letters to the girls, she wrote, "My emotion is being shadowed by the fact that no one from the circle of my faithful coworkers, who constantly risked their lives, could live long enough to enjoy all the honours that now are falling upon me.... I can't find the words to thank you, my dear girls.... Before the day you have written the play "Life in a Jar" nobody in my own country and in the whole world cared about my person and my work during the war ..."

Irene Sendler passed away on May 12, 2008. For more information visit the website: Life in a Jar: The Irena Sendler Project (

As you reflect on the heroic actions of this woman at the height of the one of the most evil events in the 20th Century, ask yourself what you would do if people in your community, not people you know and love, but those who are strangers, perhaps of a different race, religion or way of thinking and living, faced persecution, just because they were different from you?

"Love of our God, and love of our neighbour, brings us spiritual joy, and we behold the glory of the Lord our God. That is a deep and glorious spiritual truth, one that we should consider, learn, and keep safe in the depths of our hearts." (Archimandrite Nektarios Serfes)

May the rest of your week be blessed with life, love, peace and the courage to love your neighbour.

This article is the sole opinion of Rev. J.S. Bhagwan and not that of this newspaper or any organisation that Mr Bhagwan is associated with. Email:

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