MAITLAND — It sounds like the stuff of a dramatic spy novel: during World War II, a brave woman joins a secret underground network, where she covertly disseminates information intended to trick the Nazis.
Eventually, the Gestapo catches up to her, and she gets arrested — and tortured. But she miraculously manages to escape, and then lives on to the age of 98.
If you’re wondering what the name of the book is, and who wrote this work of fiction, it’s not a novel at all. It’s the true story of a woman named Irena Sendler, whose dramatic life during the German occupation of Poland is now part of a fascinating exhibit at the Holocaust Memorial Resource & Education Center in Maitland.
It’s an astonishing story, one told through the paintings of Bill Farnsworth of Venice, Florida, who created a series of paintings that capture Sendler’s years working to rescue Jewish children from the horrors of both the Warsaw Ghetto and the Treblinka death camp.
Before the end of the war, Sendler and other members of the resistance would help rescue 2,500 Jewish children from almost certain death. And equally fascinating is that Sendler’s life story was discovered nearly 45 years after the war ended.
What Is The Exhibit at The Holocaust Center?
Sendler’s courageous work on behalf of Jewish children was first recognized in 1965 by Yad Vashem and the state of Israel as one of the Polish Righteous Among the Nations, or Polish citizens recognized in Jerusalem for their heroism in saving Jews from extermination during the Holocaust.
But little was known about her in the United States until 1999, when students at a high school in Uniontown, Kansas, led by their teacher Norman Conard, produced a play based on their research into her life story. The play, called “Life in a Jar,” was staged more than 200 times.
Sendler’s story also became a series of paintings by Farnsworth that the painter donated to the Holocaust Museum And Education Center of South Florida, and which is now on loan to the Holocaust Center in Maitland.
“Heroes Of Warsaw: Painting the Irena Sendler Story” is intensely captured not only in Farnsworth’s vivid artwork, but also the accompanying title cards that recount Sendler’s story.
Sendler was born in Warsaw in 1910, but the exhibit opens in September 1939, when Germany invaded Poland.
“In the city of Warsaw, this led to the creation of a separated and sealed off section of the city known as the ghetto,” the exhibit’s liner notes state.
And that’s where the Nazis placed more than 400,000 local Jews, who would suffer horribly from malnutrition, disease and overcrowding.
And, the exhibit notes, people learning about the Holocaust today tend to ask why non-Jewish Poles didn’t do anything to help those suffering Jews. In fact, many did. And Irena Sendler was one of them.
What Did Sendler Do in Warsaw During the Nazi Era?
Sendler would join a secret organization formed to help rescue as many Jews as possible, particularly children, from the Warsaw ghetto.
“Irena Sendler is one of the greatest heroes of the Holocaust,” noted Mitchell Bloomer, the resource teacher at the Holocaust Center.
As Bloomer noted, “When she would go into the Warsaw Ghetto, she was dressed as a nurse,” even though she wasn’t one. She was actually employed as a social worker. But at the time, German officials feared epidemics and allowed Polish officials to inspect the ghetto for disease, and Sendler did sanitation inspections there, often dressed as a nurse.
But her task got much more challenging, and extremely dangerous, between July and September 1941, when the Nazis began the deportation of the inhabitants of the Warsaw Ghetto to the Treblinka Death Camp in Poland, where 35,000 died.
The Council To Aid Jews was formed to utilize escape techniques for as many Jewish children as possible.
And the fact that this was a hazardous and perilous thing to do is brought home by the fact that in October 1943, the Gestapo raided Sendler’s home, and her legs and feet were broken while she was being interrogated. And yet despite the torture, she never revealed anything about the secret mission to save Jews, who was a part of it, and where the Jewish children they had rescued were hiding.
It’s quite a story, and Farnsworth’s paintings add a powerful visual element to it.
What Are The Lessons For Today?
Sendler died in Warsaw in May 2008 at the age of 98. And as the exhibit asks in the liner notes, “Have you ever done something to show your support for those being persecuted?”
On Friday, Bloomer led a tour of students through the exhibit, and noted that Sendler demonstrated remarkable heroism in the face of such appalling intolerance, hatred, and genocidal brutality.
Addressing the young faces, he asked, “What did the Nazis say about the Jewish people? That they were horrible, they were like animals, they were not like real people.”
But not everyone believed that, as Sendler and the other members of the secret underground demonstrated, Bloomer noted.
After World War II ended and the Soviet Union took over Poland, Sendler remained a social activist, although she also pursued a career in government. But she wasn’t forgotten. Sendler received the Gold Cross of Merit in 1946 for saving Jews and the Order of the White Eagle, Poland’s highest honor, late in her life for her wartime humanitarian efforts.
It’s a powerful story well worth learning.
“Heroes Of Warsaw: Painting The Irena Sendler Story” is now being exhibited at the Holocaust Center at 851 N. Maitland Ave. through Dec. 28. The exhibit is free and open to the public.
To learn more, call 407-628-0555.
As Bloomer noted to the students, the Holocaust Center is committed to teaching the often painful and sobering lessons of the Holocaust so that history will not repeat.
“Please know you are always welcome here,” he said. “We have a lot of programs here.”
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Of Cats And Wolves.” Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com.