By Jack Mayer
In 1942 a Polish Catholic social worker, Irena Sendler organized a network of nine other social workers and a group of young Catholic and Jewish liaisons, mostly women, to rescue 2,500 Jewish children from certain death in the Warsaw ghetto. Parents were desperate to save their children; some even flung babies over the ghetto wall. Irena and her co-conspirators knocked on doors in the ghetto and asked parents to give them their children to save them.
I interviewed Irena Sendler in 2005, when she was 95 years old, and the last survivor of her rescue network. She told me of the anguish of the parents and grandparents at being separated from their children. They and Irena knew that this desperate act of love was necessary to save their lives and it caused her great suffering. Tears came to her eyes when she told me of the moment when parents held their children for the last time before letting them go. She lamented that for every child they saved, almost 100 went to their deaths at the Treblinka extermination camp where Warsaw’s Jews were murdered.
When I said she was a hero, Irena Sendler said, no, she was only doing the decent thing. She was following a “need of her heart.” As she remembered that time she said, “It was the parents. They were the heroes. The babies were the heroes of their mother’s hearts.”
Irena was arrested by the Gestapo in 1943 and tortured, but survived the ordeal and the war. Others in her rescue network did not. All but one of the children she rescued survived.
Irena’s history of heroic rescues was forgotten after the war. In communist Poland one did not admit to rescuing Jews. A resounding silence shrouded the Holocaust and the victimization of Poland and its Jews. Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust authority recognized her as a Righteous Gentile in 1965 and planted a tree in her honor in 1983, beside the tree of Raoul Wallenberg.
Seventy-four years later the U.S. Justice Department, the Dept. of Homeland Security, ICE, and Customs and Border Patrol are forcibly tearing children from their mothers’ arms — as cruel an act as I can imagine. As a pediatrician I am horrified that my country would have such little regard for the safety and well being of innocent children, inflicting horrific trauma on families fleeing for their lives from Central America. They have the right to seek asylum in our country. It is what our Statue of Liberty stands for in New York harbor. It is the foundation of our national integrity.
The American Academy of Pediatrics, the organization that speaks for the nation’s pediatricians, has taken a firm stand against this cruelty in a “Statement Opposing Separation of Children and Parents at the Border” (5/8/18). AAP President Colleen Kraft, M.D. was very clear. “Separating children from their parents contradicts everything we stand for as pediatricians — protecting and promoting children’s health. In fact, highly stressful experiences, like family separation, can cause irreparable harm, disrupting a child’s brain architecture and affecting his or her short- and long-term health. This type of prolonged exposure to serious stress — known as toxic stress — can carry lifelong consequences for children.”
I believe the heart and soul of democratic jurisprudence is a balance of justice and compassion. Are we so consumed by fear and xenophobia that we will allow our government to perpetrate such violence against children in the name of “justice?” As citizens we are accountable for our government’s actions and for our inactions. “Never again” as words is a facile response to historical injustice and cruelty. Without action, our words are meaningless. Worse yet, if we remain silent, this cruelty indicts us all.
Irena Sendler knew the pain of separating children from their parents and it caused her heart crushing sadness. But she acted for the benefit of the children and as a way of resisting those who sought to harm them. Shouldn’t it be a “need of our hearts” to reverse this cruel policy?
Shouldn’t we, too, do “the decent thing.” Not to do so should be unbearable.
Jack Mayer, M.D., M.P.H., is a Vermont primary care pediatrician and the author of “Life In A Jar: The Irena Sendler Project” and “Before The Court Of Heaven.”