October 23, 1943 The Last Great Act of Defiance

You may take my freedom, she might have said. You may take my life but you will not take away, my free will.

Before the age of the internet, sight gags were copied and re-copied and passed around from hand to hand, much the same as we text each other amusing memes, today. One stands out after all these years, as worth remembering. A “Last Great Act of Defiance”, in the face of certain destruction.

I considered whether such an image trivialized the death of a human being, because that’s what this story is about. But no, silly as it is this cartoon works just fine, as a symbol. A symbol of a small woman, naked, defenseless and yet defiant, in the face of the Nazi death camp. A ballerina barely 100 pounds soaking wet by the look of her photographs and yet, a woman who, in her last moments of life managed to take one of the Nazi sons of bitches, with her.

Franceska Mann

They say if you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life. Franceska Mann was born to dance. Any mother or father of such a child would smile at the thought of what she must have been like, growing up. By the time Franceska had come of age she had mastered classical and several forms of popular dance.

Mann studied dance at Irena Prusicka’s School of Gymnastics and Artistic Dance, one of three major studios, in pre-war Warsaw. She competed in 1939 in an international dance competition in Brussels placing fourth, out of 125 ballerinas. She was the pride of Poland considered by many to be the most beautiful and most talented, of her generation.

When the Nazi war machine invaded Poland in 1939, she was performing at the Melody Nightclub in Warsaw

For a time, Franceska’s physical features allowed her passage on the “Aryan” side of the city while up to 460,000 fellow Jews and not a few Romani people were rounded up in the “Residential District”, the infamous Warsaw Ghetto.

The Warsaw Ghetto and others like it were little more than waiting rooms, for the death camps. Even before ultimate deportation conditions, were grisly. The daily food ration for Jews in the ghetto was a scant 184 calories compared with 699 for Polish gentiles and 2,613, for Germans. Disease and starvation quickly set in to begin a process the waiting “showers”, were built to complete.

The human being is a funny critter. We’re capable of believing anything, we want to believe. For two years under these conditions, residents clung to the desperate hope that the “resettlement” promised by Nazi authorities, meant something better. By the end of 1942 it was clear nearly to all that the transports out of this place, meant only death.

Irena Sendler

Books have been written about the ghetto uprising and the desperate attempts of Irena Sendler and others, to save these people. Using her work as nurse for cover this “Angel of the Ghetto” would smuggle children out of that place with the help of a small dog trained to bark, at Nazi soldiers.

Irena would be ratted out and savagely tortured by the Gestapo but never did give up the names of countless children written on slips of paper and buried for safekeeping, in her garden.

Weapons’ and ammunition were smuggled through the sewers of Warsaw throughout much, of 1942. Nazi soldiers entered the ghetto on January 18, 1943 bent on yet another roundup. Some 600 were summarily shot and 5,000 removed from their homes when all hell broke loose from Jewish underground members, and resistance fighters.

Armed only with handguns and Molotov cocktails, resistance fighters kept the Nazis at bay for nearly four months but the end, was never in doubt. 2,000 Waffen-SS soldiers began the final assault on April 19 systematically burning or blowing up ghetto buildings, block by block. Some 56,065 people were murdered on the spot or rounded up, for extermination. Major resistance came to an end on April 28. The May 16 demolition of the Great Synagogue of Warsaw little more, than symbolic.

The “Jewish Residential District” of Warsaw, after the uprising.

Today, the Nożyk Synagogue is the only pre-war Jewish house of worship left standing, in the Polish capital. The building was used as a horse stable for the German Wehrmacht, during the war.

At this point, the Nazi government turned its attention to rooting out those left in hiding, outside the ghetto. Since 1941, Jewish and Polish diplomats worked with certain South American nations to send documents into the Warsaw ghetto. Such documents it was believed, may help Jews and others “prove” to be nationals of neutral nations and thus eligible, for safe transfer.

Passports both real and forged flooded into the region often, through the Hotel Polski. Many if not all such documents were intercepted by the Gestapo. With the help of Jewish collaborators, thousands left in hiding were lured to the Hotel Polski in hopes, of escape. Nations from Paraguay, Honduras and El Salvador to Peru and Chile beckoned, or so it was imagined. Genuine passports of Jews no longer alive sold on the black market for the equivalent, of up to a million 2021 dollars.

As many as 3,500 came out of hiding and moved to the Hotel Polski. The Polish Underground warned Jews it was probably a trap but we all believe what we want to believe, don’t we? Franceska Mann most likely received her own passport, in this manner.

Some 1,700 were rounded up at this place arriving on the trains to Auschwitz-Birkenau, on October 23. You can find a dozen or more versions of what happened next since it all comes out, of the death camp rumor mill. What is certain is that women were separated from men and made to disrobe for “delousing”. It was all prior to final deportation to Switzerland, they were told.

Fit, young and attractive as she was Franceska Mann drew the attention of two of her guards, Josef Schillinger and Wilhelm Emmerich. Using her considerable gifts she drew them in close and, with the speed of an athlete knocked Schillinger in the face with her shoe, drew the man’s gun and shot him twice in the belly. Emmerich was shot once, in the leg. Pandemonium broke out near the showers as hundreds of women in all states of dress and undress, turned on their tormenters. One SS man had his nose bitten off. Another was scalped by the desperate, angry mob.

This fanciful artist’s rendition is anything but accurate but, we get the picture.

Reinforcements arrived within moments. The gas was turned on killing those trapped, inside the chamber. Women in the changing area were machine gunned while those few caught outside were summarily, murdered.

On this day in 1943 it was all over, in minutes. Josef Schillinger died a painful death from those two gunshots. Emmerich recovered from his wounds.

Dark rumors may be found on the internet as to whether Mann herself was a Nazi collaborator. Witnesses who were there tell a different story, their stories recorded in transcripts, of the Nuremberg trials. The tales told by foreign professors born decades after the fact may be accepted or dismissed as you wish but one thing is left to contemplate. How would the chattering classes have behaved had they themselves lived in such a time, and such a place.

The Nazi extermination machine ground on for nearly two more years but one thing was certain. One terrified, desperate ballerina disarmed and about to die had rendered the beasts short, one of their own number.

August 5, 1942 Old Doctor

The children’s author was offered sanctuary on the “Aryan side” but the man refused, saying that he would stay with his children. Janusz Korczak and his orphaned children were last seen boarding the train to the Treblinka extermination camp on August 5 or 6.

Janusz Korczak was a children’s author and pediatrician, a teacher and himself a lifelong learner, a student of pedagogy, the art of science of education, and how children learn.

Korczak10lat0001Born Henryk Goldszmit into the Warsaw family of Józef Goldszmit, in 1878 or ’79 (the sources vary), Korczak was the pen name by which he wrote children’s books.

Henryk was an exceptional student, of above-average intelligence. His father fell ill when the boy was only eleven or twelve and was admitted into a mental hospital, where he died, six years later. As the family’s situation worsened, the boy would tutor other students, to help with household finances.

Goldszmit was a Polish Jew, though not particularly religious, who never believed in forcing religion on children.

He wrote his first book in 1896, a satirical tome on child-rearing, called Węzeł gordyjski (The Gordian Knot). He adopted the pen name Janusz Korczak two years later, writing for the Ignacy Jan Paderewski Literary Contest.

220px-Janusz_KorczakKorczak wrote for several Polish language newspapers while studying medicine at the University of Warsaw, becoming a pediatrician in 1904. Always the writer, Korczak received literary recognition in 1905 with his book Child of the Drawing Room (Dziecko salonu), while serving as medical officer during the Russo-Japanese war.

He went to Berlin to study in 1907-’08 and worked at the Orphan’s Society in 1909, where he met Stefania “Stefa” Wilczyńska, an educator who would become his associate and close collaborator.

In the years before the Great War, Korczak ran an orphanage of his own design, hiring Wilczyńska as his assistant. There he formed a kind of quasi-Republic for Jewish orphans, complete with its own small parliament, court, and newspaper. The man was born to be an educator.

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In early modern European Royalty, 15th – 18th century, a “whipping boy” was the friend and constant companion to the boy prince or King, whose job it was to get his ass kicked, for the prince’s transgressions. The Lord was not the be struck by his social inferior. It was thought that, to watch his buddy get whipped for his misdeeds would have the same instructional effect, as the beating itself.

The extent of the custom is open to debate and it may be a myth altogether, but one thing is certain.  Poland has been described as the “whipping boy of Europe”, for good reason.

JK2The Polish nation, the sixth largest in all Europe, was sectioned and partitioned for over a century, by Austrian, Prussian, and Russian imperial powers. Korczak volunteered for military service in 1914, serving as military doctor during WW1 and the series of Polish border wars between 1919-’21.

The “Second Polish Republic” emerging from all this in 1922 was roughly two-thirds Polish, the rest a kaleidoscope of ethnic, linguistic and religious minorities.  Relations were anything but harmonious between ethnic Russians, Germans, Lipka Tatars and others, and most especially Poland’s Jewish minority, the largest in pre-WW2 Europe.

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Silver Cross of the Polonia Restituta

Janusz Korczak returned to his life’s work in 1921 of providing for the children of this Jewish community, all the while writing no fewer than thirteen children’s books, along with another seven on pedagogy and other subjects.

In the inter-war years, Korczak put together a children’s newspaper, the Mały Przegląd (Little Review), as a weekly supplement to the daily Polish-Jewish newspaper, Nasz Przegląd (Our Review).

Korczak had his own radio program promoting the rights of children, to whom he was known as Pan Doktor (“Mr. Doctor”) or Stary Doktor (“Old Doctor”).

The Polish government awarded “Old Doctor” the Polonia Restituta in 1933, a state order bestowed on individuals for outstanding achievements in the fields of education, science and other civic accomplishments.

Yearly visits to Mandatory Palestine, the geopolitical entity partitioned from the Ottoman Empire in 1923 and future Jewish state of Israel, led to anti-Semitic crosscurrents in the Polish press, and gradual estrangement from non-Jewish orphanages.

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The second Republic’s brief period of independence came to an end in September 1939, with the Nazi invasion of Poland.  Korczak volunteered once again but was refused, due to his age.

Tales of Polish courage in the face of the Wehrmacht are magnificent bordering on reckless, replete with images of horse cavalry riding out to meet German tanks. Little Poland never had a chance, particularly when the Soviet Union piled on, two weeks later.

As an independent nation-state the Sovereign Republic of Poland was dead, though Polish air crews went on to make the largest contribution to the Battle of Britain, among the United Kingdom’s thirteen non-British defenders.  Polish Resistance made significant contributions to the Allied war effort, throughout WW2.

janusz-korczak

Warsaw became the largest Jewish ghetto in Nazi-occupied Europe within the following year.  The Jews of Poland were herded into the city, barely existing on meager rations while awaiting the death squads of the SS.  Old Doctor and his orphans were forced into the Ghetto, in 1939.

There were nearly 200 of them on this day in 1942, when soldiers of the Gross-Aktion (Great Action) Warsaw, came for their “Resettlement to the East”.

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The Pianist, by Władysław Szpilman

The extermination camp at Treblinka, awaits.

Polish-Jewish composer and musician Władysław Szpilman, one of precious few survivors of the Jewish ghetto, describes the scene in his 1946 memoir, The Pianist:

“He told the orphans they were going out into the country, so they ought to be cheerful. At last they would be able to exchange the horrible suffocating city walls for meadows of flowers, streams where they could bathe, woods full of berries and mushrooms. He told them to wear their best clothes, and so they came out into the yard, two by two, nicely dressed and in a happy mood. The little column was led by an SS man…”

Eyewitness Joshua Perle states that:  Janusz Korczak was marching, his head bent forward, holding the hand of a child… A few nurses were followed by two hundred children, dressed in clean and meticulously cared for clothes, as they were being carried to the altar.

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At the Umschlagplatz, the rail-side assembly area on the way to Treblinka, an SS officer recognized Korczak, and called him aside.  The children’s author was offered sanctuary on the “Aryan side” but the man refused, saying that he would stay with his children.  Stary Doktor was offered deportation to the Theresienstadt concentration camp instead, but again he refused.

The man who refused freedom to die with his orphaned children was last seen boarding the train to Treblinka on August 5 or 6, where all 200 were murdered, the following day.

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Janusz Korczak memorial stone, Treblinka

“Dr. Janusz Korczak’s children’s home is empty now. A few days ago we all stood at the window and watched the Germans surround the houses. Rows of children, holding each other by their little hands, began to walk out of the doorway. There were tiny tots of two or three years among them, while the oldest ones were perhaps thirteen. Each child carried the little bundle in his hand”. — Mary Berg, The Diary

May 12, 2008 Angel of Warsaw

All told, Irena Sendler saved about 2,400 Jewish children and infants and about 100 teenagers, who went into the forests to join partisan bands fighting the Nazis. The far better known Oskar Schindler is credited with saving less than half that number.

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Dr. Stanisław & Janina Krzyżanowski

Dr. Stanislaw Krzyżanowski was a physician treating mostly the poorer Jewish families in the central Polish town of Otwock, 14 miles southeast of Warsaw.   He had once said to his only daughter Irena:  “If you see someone drowning, you must save them.” “But, what if I can’t swim?” she asked. “Nevertheless, you must try”.

Overwhelmed by the typhus epidemic of 1917, Dr. Krzyżanowski contracted the disease himself and died that February, but his example guided his daughter for the rest of her life.  Jewish community leaders showed their gratitude by offering to pay for Irena’s education, but her mother declined.

Irena (Krzyżanowski) Sendler was a nurse living outside Warsaw, when Nazi Germany invaded Poland in 1939.  The Nazis gathered up every Jew they could find in 1940, penning 400,000 or more up in the city. Soon, the Warsaw ghetto became the scene of suffering, disease and starvation. Knowing the Nazis feared nothing so much as Typhus, Sendler took advantage of their fears and obtained permission to begin work in the ghetto.

Sendler Truck
“Irena in a social welfare department truck in May 1948” H/T U.K. Daily Mail

She would travel there daily, and soon started to smuggle Jewish babies out in the bottom of a medical bag.  She’d place soiled bandages around and over sedated babies, to keep guards from looking too closely. She carried a burlap sack in the back of her truck. Sometimes she’d use that or even a coffin to smuggle larger children and even teenagers out of the ghetto, other times leading them out through cellars or sewers.

Sendler traveled with a small a dog she had trained to bark at Nazi soldiers letting her in and out of the gates. They wanted nothing to do with her small, yappy dog, and the barking would cover any sounds that the babies might make.

She would make as many as three runs a day, taking out as many as 6 children. Most of them were already orphans by this time, their parents murdered by the Nazi regime.  Many times, parents gave up their children in order to save them.

Irena coded the names of these children onto two slips of paper, including false and real names.  These she buried in glass jars under a tree in the yard of a friend. She obtained false papers for each of the kids, passing them along to nunneries, monasteries and to foster parents.

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‘Angel of the Warsaw Ghetto”, Irena Sendler

Elzbieta Ficowska was smuggled out in a carpenter’s toolbox at the age of six months.  ‘When I was 17″, she said, “a friend said she’d heard I was Jewish. At that point, my Polish mum told me the truth, giving me a silver spoon engraved with my name and birth date, which my blood family had placed in the box with me.   Elzbieta later learned that her family wept on hearing she was to be baptized, but later signaled their understanding by sending a christening gown and tiny gold cross.  “I consider both my Polish mum and Irena to be a little pathological. It is a kind of insanity to overcome such fear. They were so alike, my mum and Irena – fantastic, strong women”.

Anna Mieszkowska, the author of Sendler’s Polish biography, tells a story.  ‘Irena told me not to put this story in the book. She was asked to save two children, a boy and a girl. The parents wanted them to go but the grandparents did not. Irena arrived at their address and found the whole family had committed suicide – grandparents, parents, children. She had nightmares about this for many years.’

Sendler was caught by the Gestapo in 1943, betrayed by a colleague under torture, and by a nosy landlady.  Nazi interrogators beat her savagely, but she never gave up any of those names.

Irena lasted 100 days in Pawiak prison, a place where average inmate survival was less than a month.  Finally she was returned to the Gestapo and stood against a wall for execution, too broken to care. An SS guard said “not you” and shoved her out into the street. He’d been bribed by her friends, and was himself later caught and executed. For now she was “officially” dead, which made it easier to escape detection for the remainder of the war.Sendlerowa, 1

After the war, Irena tried to reunite parents or surviving family members with the children she’d rescued. She was rarely successful.

All told, Irena Sendler saved about 2,400 Jewish children and infants and about 100 teenagers, who went into the forests to join partisan bands fighting the Nazis. The far better known Oskar Schindler is credited with saving less than half that number.

Today, Elzbieta Ficowska tries to keep her Jewish roots, but they seem foreign to her.  ‘When I enter a Catholic church, everything is mine. Sometimes I look in the mirror for traces of my real parents. I sent letters all around the world to try to find out about them.’  She has never seen so much as a photograph.

The Polish Government honored Irena Sendler with the Order of the White Eagle, its highest award. The Yad Vashem Remembrance Center in Jerusalem honored her as a “Righteous Gentile” in 1965. She received honorary citizenship in Israel in 1985, and the Polish and Israeli Governments nominated her for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007.

SendlerowaThe Nobel Prize for Peace was awarded on October 12 in Oslo, Norway, to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and Albert Arnold Gore Jr. “for their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change”.

Irena Sendler passed away on May 12, 2008 at the age of 98. This choice of 2007 Nobel prize recipients has been controversial, since Nobel by-laws prohibit posthumous award of the prize. Many felt that Sendler had more than earned it. Some have claimed that Nobel committee rules require qualifying work to have taken place within the two years immediately preceding nomination, but I think they’re making it up. I’ve read the Nobel statutes. You can do so yourself, HERE, if you’re so inclined   I find no such requirement.  Let me know if I missed it, the whole thing seems political, to me.

Irena Sendler always said that she wasn’t a hero, she only did what any normal person would do. I find in the story of this petite Polish nurse, some of the most magnificent courage of which our species is capable.  If that does not make her a hero, I don’t know what would.

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