Nearly half of Canadians can’t name a single concentration camp from the Holocaust, and 22 per cent of Millennials don’t even know what the Holocaust is.
These are among the findings of a survey, released last month by the Azrieli Foundation. The survey also suggests most Canadians aged 18-34 don’t know how many Jews were murdered; were unable to name one of the 40,000 concentration camps or ghettos; lacked comprehensive understanding of where the Holocaust occurred and showed little familiarity with key Holocaust figures.
This Sunday, the White Rock/South Surrey Jewish Community Centre is playing host to New York Times bestselling author Tilar Mazzeo, who wrote a book about Irena Sendler, an extraordinary woman who was, up until the turn of the century, not mentioned in North American history books.
Dubbed the “female Oskar Schindler,” Sendler helped create a network that smuggled an estimated 2,500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto, the largest Jewish ghetto in German-occupied Europe during the Second World War.
Sendler – described in Mazzeo’s book Irena’s Children: The Extraordinary Story of the Woman Who Saved 2,500 Children from the Warsaw Ghetto – was a social welfare pioneer in the ’30s before Germany occupied Poland.
A married Polish Catholic, Sendler had a Jewish boyfriend and many Jewish friends before the Germans invaded Warsaw.
Sendler was separated from her boyfriend when the Warsaw Ghetto wall was constructed in 1940. However, she was able to secure a pass from a doctor to be part of the “epidemic control group,” allowing her enter and exit the Warsaw Ghetto
“At that point she sees the disease – people are hungry – it’s a public health crisis,” Mazzeo told Peace Arch News Monday.
Mazzeo said one of Sendler’s first “act of resistance” was her decision to smuggle vaccinations into the ghetto.
“At some point, of having to walk over dead bodies of children to go and see her friends and boyfriend, what she realizes is that smuggling medicine isn’t enough.”
Mazzeo said the most vulnerable population inside the ghetto were families that were not from Warsaw, but Jews that had come into the ghetto as refugees.
“Many of those adults died quite quickly, and those children didn’t have extended family networks and were left orphaned in the street, in the ghetto,” Mazzeo said. “What she did on one day – kind of on a whim, as she described it – there was a starving kid, and she took the kid out of the ghetto. She said that’s when she realized that you could do that, that it was possible to smuggle children out.”
Sendler created increasingly elaborate ways to smuggle children out of the ghetto.
She would falsify documents and lie about contagious diseases to keep the Germans at bay; she would teach children catechism because it was typical for Germans to ask a child to recite Catholic catechism, and she would even dress little boys – who were circumcised – as if they were little girls.
Sendler would smuggle children under coats, in toolboxes and coffins. Sometimes, she would slip the children into the sewers and secret passages that led to abandoned buildings.
Once a child had completely forgotten their Jewish identity, they could be safely placed in Catholic orphanages, Mazzeo said.
One promise that Sendler made the parents is that she would reunite them with their children once the war had ended.
“Ninety per cent of the parents died, most of them in Treblinka (extermination camp),” Mazzeo said.
Sendler created a list of every child she helped save, including their true identity. That list was destroyed during the destruction of Warsaw, Mazzeo added.
“Immediately after, (Sendler) and her girlfriends sat down and made a list of every child they could remember. She said you never forget a child you took from their parents in the middle of the ghetto,” Mazzeo said.
Mazzeo said that Sendler and her friends risked certain death if she was ever suspected of trying to help the Jews.
“During the Nazi period, the rule was that helping a Jewish person was a capital crime. And helping meant giving directions on the street, giving a starving person a piece of bread. The punishment was collective punishment,” Mazzeo said.
“They would come to your home, if you were hiding any Jewish people they would round up the Jewish children first and execute them on the street. Then they would execute the Jewish adults, then they would execute your children in front of you. Then they would execute you and you would be left on the street corner and nobody would be allowed to touch your body.”
Under suspicion, Sendler was arrested by the Germans and taken to Pawiak prison. On her way to the prison, she ate a piece of paper that contained names of Jewish children she was to visit later that day.
In prison, Sendler was tortured and both of her legs were broken.
After attempting to physically compel Sendler to provide information, the Nazis decided to execute her. As Sendler was on her way to be shot, a prison guard – who was bribed by others in Sendler’s resistance – rerouted her and saved her life.
Mazzeo said the prison guard was paid the biggest bribe in the resistance’s history, and he was subsequently executed by the Germans.
Once free, Sendler changed her name and got right back to the work she was doing.
“She was a force of nature,” Mazzeo said. “You could break both her legs and try to execute her and she was still going to get right back up.”
Mazzeo said she spent two years researching for the book, and spent several months in Warsaw interviewing some of the survivors. As Holocaust survivors reach the end of their lives, Mazzeo said now is the last possible moment to do certain types of research.
When asked to describe her impression of Sendler, who died in 2008, Mazzeo says she resists the idea that Irena Sendler was a saint.
“Or that it would be a good thing to think of her as a saint. Not that she wasn’t a really good person, she clearly is a woman of immense moral and physical courage. But she was a person like any of us – she was not a saint,” Mazzeo said.
“What’s so inspiring is that this is what an average person is capable of. This is a group of people who… in the face of something really wrong, decided to do something right. And they didn’t have to be more special than the rest of us. (Sendler) being called a saint gets the rest of us off the hook.”
Mazzeo is to speak about Irena’s Children at the White Rock/South Surrey Jewish Community Centre from 4:30-5:30 p.m., Feb. 10. The event is part of the centre’s Jewish Book Festival.
The book was released in 2017.