Last year I wrote a piece for JUF on coming to terms with the Holocaust as a convert. It's a subject I have studied for over 20 years, but it became much more personal as I learned just what it meant to be a Jew and met children and grandchildren of, and the survivors themselves. It seems that one of the dangerous trends in the years since the Shoah is the attempt to whitewash history and absolve everyone but the highest-ranking Nazis of any guilt. Perhaps the best defense against such excuses, then, are the stories of Righteous Gentiles who refused to sit idly by while their fellow citizens were murdered. In the face of unimaginable evil, they risked their lives to choose good.
I recently stumbled across the story of Irena Sendler, a Polish woman who helped to save the lives of over 2,000 Jewish children. Going door-to-door in the Warsaw Ghetto, Irena convinced parents that their children would only survive if she smuggled them out and placed them with Polish families, convents, and orphanages. At one point, she was captured by the Nazis and brutally beaten, after which she went underground and resumed her brave efforts.
Were it not for a history assignment half a world away and decades later, Irena's name and courage may have been forgotten. But in 1999, three students in Kansas entered their project on Irena Sendler into a National History Day challenge, inspired by their classroom motto, "He who changes one person, changes the world entire." Those familiar with the Talmud will recognize the similarity to, "Whoever saves a single life, it is as if he has saved the whole world." It's a coincidence that is perfectly fitting for a woman who courageously saved many lives.
You can visit IrenaSendler.com to learn more about her incredible story and upcoming events, and discover other unsung heroes in history via Twitter and Facebook.