I wrote about Irena Sendler in a blog post dated March 31, 2008. In yesterday morning’s New York Times, her obituary startled me into tears.
She was a genuine heroine who rescued 2,500 children from the Warsaw ghetto during World War II. The kicker is that she didn’t consider herself a heroine. She often said, “I did what anyone would have done.”
Mrs. Sendler was one of the first of the so-called righteous gentiles honored by the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem in 1965. Her government at the time did not allow her to travel to accept the award. She finally did in 1983.
Toward the end of her obituary, it says, “She is survived by her daughter, Janka, and a granddaughter.” But is she?
Isn’t she also survived by me, and you, and the children and grandchildren of those she saved? Inspiration is an amazing thing. There’s no telling what will cause a human spirit to be inspired. I wish I could assure you that I would have done what Irena did, but, truthfully, I don’t know what I would have done.
What I do know is that Irena Sendler’s long-ago actions have inspired me now. Her legacy to all of us is a legacy of willful blindness—the very best kind of blindness! What her Catholic self saw when she looked at the faces of Jewish children and their parents, were not Jews, but children and parents.
These are the faces we need to practice seeing everywhere in the world today. The children and parents where Hurricane Katrina happened. Children and parents amidst the Chinese earthquake and the Myanmar tornado. Children and parents at the grocery store and the pharmacy and in traffic and in the park.
Irena Sendler was ethnically and spiritually blind, and she leaves us an invitation to see human beings wherever we go, human beings that are more alike than different, human beings all seeking the same things in life, human beings who deserve respect for their dignity.
Irena Sendler lived what the best of any of us would do.