First they came for the communists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me.
Martin Niemöller, the Germany clergyman who authored these words, was one of the few who did speak out against Adolph Hitler in the early days of the Nazi party. While the majority of Germans traded conscience for convenience by closing their eyes to the atrocities perpetrated upon their own countrymen, his solitary cry for reason still echoes amidst the silence.
For his troubles, Martin Niemöller was arrested in 1937 and eventually interred in Sachsenhausen and Dachau until his eventual liberation in 1945. He lived until 1984, a voice of penance among the German people.
Among lesser known heroes is Irena Sendler, who risked her life to save some 2,500 Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto between 1942 and 1943. Working secretly as a member of Żegota, the Council for Jewish Aid, and using her position as an administrator for the Warsaw Social Welfare Department, Irena first tried to divert food, clothing, and medicine to Jews in the Ghetto, subsequently going door to door offering Jewish parents a chance to save their children’s lives.
“In my dreams,” she said, “I still hear the cries when they left their parents.”
One by one, Irena smuggled the children out in ambulances, gunnysacks, and body bags, finding families of Polish gentiles willing to take them in. She recorded the name of every child and hid her lists in jars she buried in a neighbor’s yard. After the war, she dug up the names and attempted to reunite the children with their families, most of whom had perished in the death camps.
On October 20, 1943, Irena was arrested by the Gestapo, who broke her legs and feet trying to force from her the names of the families who harbored the Jewish children. Refusing to divulge her secrets, Irena eventually escaped imprisonment and lived out the remainder of the war in hiding.
In 1965, Yad Vashem recognized Irena as one of the Polish Righteous Among the Nations. In 2007, she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. The prize was awarded that year to Al Gore for his movie on global warming.
Few people had heard of Irena Sendler until 1999, when a high school history teacher in Kansas came across a passing reference to her in U. S. News and World Report. Three students began a research project that culminated in their award-winning play, Life in a Jar, which has since been performed hundreds of times across North America and Europe.
Authentic heroism arises from intolerance for evil, from an unwillingness to stand idly by in the face of injustice no matter how improbable the odds and no matter how dire the consequences. Like Moses, who struck down the Egyptian he found beating an innocent Jew, a person of conscience may at any moment find himself facing a critical decision between common sense and common decency, where action appears pointless but where inaction amounts to an alliance with evil. A true hero is one who recognizes that such a choice is no choice at all.
“I could have done more,” Irena said. “This regret will follow me to my death.”
For more information about other unsung heroes, visit the Lowell Milken Center.