By Barb Arland-Fye
DAVENPORT — Irena Sendler, portrayed by Judy Winnick, tells her audience at St. Ambrose University Oct. 2 that she never lost hope while imprisoned by Nazis who tortured her. They fractured her legs and feet and threatened to execute her for rescuing Jewish children in the Warsaw Ghetto. “I had hope,” she says in a thick Polish accent, unfolding a slip of paper that reads: “I trust in thee.” “I knew if I believed, I would survive,” continues Irena, who describes herself as a devout Catholic.
The performance is set in 1956 in Poland, 11 years after World War II ended. Irena, 46, walks slowly, with the aid of a cane, and sits down at a table on which a toolbox sits. She begins her story. The audience listens with rapt attention because Judy’s performance has attendees hanging on every word she utters. The petite Irena managed, with the help of others, to rescue 2,500 Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto, practically under the noses of the Nazis.
Although her story went untold for years when the Communists ruled Poland, Irena eventually received numerous awards for her selfless efforts and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007. Irena is recognized by the state of Israel as one of the Righteous Among Nations at Yad Vashem.
In the one-woman performance Irena opens the tool box, takes out a blanket and holds it lovingly in her arms, remembering the baby who had been hidden inside the box to be smuggled out of the ghetto. Some children were hidden in potato sacks or in coffins. Older children were led out in various ways.
Irena was a Polish Catholic social worker by profession. In secret she was a leader of “Zegota,” Council for Aid to Jews, in charge of the children’s section. She smiles knowingly at the audience, announcing proudly, “I knew I could get forged documents for children … we had the best forgers in Europe.”
Orphans were rescued first, because they were most in need, she explains. Every child received a new, Christian identity, and those who were old enough were taught Christian prayers so that the Nazis wouldn’t discover their true identities and send them to death camps. “They had to ‘act’ like Christian children for their survival, but they were never forced into Christianity,” Irena says gravely.
To ensure that their true identities would not be forgotten, Irena recorded each child’s name on slips of paper and placed them in jars she buried beneath an apple tree in a friend’s yard. “Hopefully after the war, they could carry on the legacy of their parents.”
In an especially moving part of the performance, Irena says with sincerity and conviction: “I’m not (a) hero. But I do know that for every child who survived the Holocaust with my help, it is justification for my life here on this earth, and not a title to glory.”
Following the performance, Judy remained in character to answer audience members’ questions.
What happened to the slips of paper that she buried in jars beneath the apple tree? Irena said the jars were recovered after the war and the children’s names were provided to Jewish social service agencies. Yes, she was able to visit with children she had rescued, and that gave her great joy. How did Irena keep from giving names of her colleagues to the Nazis torturing her? “When I was tortured, I lost consciousness. It was good for me … I told them nothing.”
After the war, Irena was reunited with her husband, who had served in the Polish Army. Both had been through horrific experiences and ended up divorcing, she said. She married a Jewish man and had two children with him. She also suffered a miscarriage after interrogation by Soviet authorities, she noted.
A woman in the audience with an accent said she was from Poland and that her grandparents had spoken of hiding a Jewish family on her grandparents’ farm during the war. Still in character, Judy expressed appreciation and reached out her arms toward the direction of the woman.
Irena Sendler died at age 98 in 2008, the year before Judy began studying Irena’s story. Judy, a retired school teacher and recipient of a Colorado Distinguished Teacher award, gave her first performance of “The Angel of the Warsaw Ghetto” at a Baptist church in Colorado. She has performed at churches, synagogues and other venues in the United States and in Europe. A former Quad-City resident saw one of her performances in Colorado and recommended it to Allan Ross, executive director of the Jewish Federation of the Quad Cities. The Jewish Federation sponsored Judy’s performance at St. Ambrose University, the Tri-City Jewish Center in Rock Island, Ill., Rock Island Public Library, and area schools.
“Her performance touched me personally,” said Ross, whose father and step-mother survived the Holocaust.
Holocaust monument dedicated at St. Ambrose University
A stone monument dedicated Oct. 3 at St. Ambrose University in Davenport to non-Jews who saved persecuted Jews during the Holocaust serves as a reminder to be courageous, observed Father Chuck Adam. The chaplain and director of campus ministry emceed the dedication ceremony outside Christ the King Chapel and asked for God’s blessings on interfaith dialogue and for help “in our efforts to be courageous.”
The monument is a gift from the Jewish Federation of the Quad Cities that honors Father Pierre-Marie Benoit, Irena Sendler and the more than 24,000 non-Jews who saved persecuted Jews during the Holocaust.
“We are grateful to St. Ambrose University to have the monument located on campus and for being part of the Holocaust Remembrance program for so many years,” said Allan Ross, executive director of the Jewish Federation of the Quad-Cities.
Other representatives from the university and the Jewish community who participated in the ceremony included Paul Koch, St. Ambrose’s vice president of academic and student affairs, Rabbi Tamar Grimm of Congregation Beth Israel at the Tri-City Jewish Center in Rock Island, Ill., and Rabbi Henry Karp of Temple Emanuel in Davenport. Judy Winnick, dressed in character as Irena Sendler, also spoke.
“Our lives were truly enriched last night when we had the opportunity to see Judy Winnick portray Irena Sendler,” Koch said. “As I reflected on Judy’s portrayal and the lives of Irena Sendler and Father Pierre-Marie Benoit … I was struck by how consonant their behavior was with the core values of St. Ambrose University. As a Catholic university we strive to live out our faith tradition through an openness to those of other faith traditions.
“We pursue justice and peace in an environment that fosters the development of a broad awareness of humanity in all its dimensions and we believe in the inherent God-given dignity and worth of every person. Thus, it is fitting that we join today with our friends and partners in the Quad-Cities Jewish community to honor Irena Sendler, Fr. Benoit, and the thousands who worked to save lives during the Holocaust.”
Rabbi Grimm, who gave a prayer in Hebrew and in English, said: “I think it is important to remember that God works through the righteous.”
Rabbi Karp, an adjunct professor at St. Ambrose, noted the long relationship St. Ambrose has maintained with the Jewish community. He prayed that all would model the God-like and God-loving behavior exemplified by righteous non-Jews.
“This monument touches my heart,” said Judy, portraying Irena. “It is so fitting to be here at St. Ambrose University, whose (campus ministry’s) motto is faith, learning and justice.”