This article appeared in the Oct. 30, 2003 Jewish Advocate.
Newton woman reflects on her past as rescuer Irena Sendler receives Jan Karski Award
By Susie Davidson
At 93, Irena Sendler cannot travel far from her Warsaw nursing home. But on Oct. 23 at Georgetown University, one of the children she saved in World War II accepted her 2003 Jan Karski Award for Valor and Compassion from the American Center of Polish Culture. Sendler was nominated by Stefanie Seltzer, President of the World Federation of Jewish Child Survivors of the Holocaust, who is also on the Claims Conference Board. The First Lady of Poland, Jolanta Kwasniewska, was the guest of honor.
Sendler, a Polish social worker, visited the Warsaw ghetto daily, pretending to work for the Epidemic Control Department, persuading parents to painfully part with their children. With the rescue organization Zegota, she helped to smuggle 2500 children to the Aryan side of the ghetto, in potato sacks or, as supposed typhoid victims, in coffins. The children were placed with Polish families or in convents, orphanages, or educational institutions. Sendler was arrested, imprisoned and tortured in 1943 and eventually sentenced to death, but was saved at the last moment by a Zegota bribe. Listed as executed, she continued to clandestinely save Jewish children.
Although honored by Yad Vashem in 1965, Sendler’s story was not brought to light until 1999, when three Kansas high school students’ read about her in an old magazine. They eventually met Sendler in Poland, and produced a skit of her story, “Life in a Jar,” which is currently performed internationally by a cast of 17. Their teacher, Norm Conard, aided Seltzer in the Karski nominating decision.
“I was taught by my father that when someone is drowning, you don't ask if they can swim, you just jump in and help,” Sendler later told Seltzer. “During the war, everyone was drowning, but mostly the Jewish children,” she said.
The Karski Award honors the memory of Warsaw Ghetto Allied eyewitness Dr. Jan Karski, an observant Polish Catholic who in his commiseration, and regret over failing to convince Roosevelt to act sooner, came to call himself a Jew. “The Karski Award carries a message of moral courage in the face of indifference and danger,” said World Federation Advisory and Governing Board member Rosian Zerner of Newtonville.
Zerner, who did not attend the event due to a Nov. 1 trip to Washington for a Tribute to Survivors ceremony, is a former Executive Board member and Secretary of the World Federation of Jewish Child Survivors of the Holocaust. She presently serves on its Advisory and Governing Boards, and represents its Greater Boston Child Survivor branch, one of 50 worldwide WFJCSH member groups. She is also on the local Board of ARMDI, American Red Mogen Dovid Adom.
Born into an affluent Lithuanian family, Zerner soon experienced great social disparities. “My father had a 1935 Ford and chauffeur and we had servants,” she recalled. “Then we had nothing.” Later in Italy, her father again prospered. Zerner’s educational path was equally uneven. She had only one year of formal education before escaping Lithuania, and entered first grade at the age of 10 in Italy without knowing the language. She went on to become the first foreigner to study ballet at Milan’s La Scala Opera House, and once in the US, was placed as a sophomore in Newton High school after only three years of formal schooling and again, without knowing the language. Three years later, she went on to Barnard College.
Although Zerner came from a long line of Rabbis, her family was not overtly religious. “Many Holocaust survivors never really understood how God allowed such horror, my father one of them,” she recalled. During the war, she was baptized Catholic and nearly became a nun. She explored varied Eastern philosophies, but was also deeply rooted in Zionist ideals. “I can look at a photo of my grandmother with Ben-Gurion, or my aunt who was an original kibbutz founder and treasurer of an Israeli political party, and remember vividly my Hachshara days in Italy as I trained to go to Israel and fight with the Hagganah,” she observed.
In 2000, Zerner decided to reconnect to her lost childhood. She returned to her birthplace in Lithuania, met with a friend with whom she was in one hiding place, and revisited the Kovno Ghetto and many past hiding places.
In 2001 the German/Jewish Dialogue group selected Zerner to participate in a two-week trip to study Jewish life in Germany at the European Academy in Berlin. “I had previously traveled to 64 countries without ever wanting to set foot on German soil and this experience took me to sites that included extermination and concentration camps as well as meetings with dignitaries, mayors and cultural leaders,” she said. She spent the final two weeks with one of her rescuers. “It was the first time I had seen her since I had left Lithuania, and our reunion was one of the most moving moments of my life.”
Zerner had planned to spend a week with her, but as fate would have it, her airplane boarding pass was dated Sept. 11, 2001. “I had no luggage, my money had been stolen and I returned to Gretchen for another week before I could obtain another ticket home,” she said. “She had rescued me again!”
“I personally know some of the people rescued by Irena Sendler, as well as Stefanie, whp nominated her for this important award,” said Zerner. “It is not only a great day for some Jews to see their rescuer honored, but the award creates a link between the Polish and Jewish communities by glorifying courageous acts of selfless heroism that went against the then prevailing social order,” she added. “It makes an official statement that today at least some in Poland are willing to face the past and recognize the possibility of dialogue.
“96 percent of Lithuanian Jews were murdered during the Holocaust, the highest proportion to population in Europe,” Zerner continued. “To me it was a miracle that mother, dad and I survived as an intact family.”
For information on Irena Sendler, please visit www.irenasendler.org.