Issue #532 -------
May 6, 2012
Whoever destroys a life, it is considered as if he
destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a
life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.
Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 4:8 (37a)
Most of you are probably familiar with the name Oskar Schindler (1908-1974), the opportunistic ethnic German industrialist who is credited with saving over 1100 Jews during the Nazi occupations of Poland and Czechoslovakia by employing them (and protecting them) in his factories. His story was immortalized in the 1993 Steven Spielberg movie "Schindler's List," which won seven Academy Awards, including the Oscar for "Best Picture." Very few of you, however, have probably heard the name Irena Sendler, who some have characterized "the female Oskar Schindler." Indeed, it has only been in the last several years, and by a rather strange set of events, that her story has come to light at all. Yet, over 2500 Jewish children owe their lives to the efforts of this courageous, compassionate Christian woman, who risked her own life to save others. Her story is an inspiring one and deserves to be told, as she evidences the very spirit of Jesus Himself in her loving, sacrificial service to others and in her bold stand against the evil tyranny of her time. This coming Saturday, May 12th, will mark the fourth anniversary of her death at the age of 98. Thus, in this issue of Reflections, we give honor to whom honor is due (Rom. 13:7).
Irena was born in the town of Otwock, Poland (about 15 miles southeast of Warsaw) on February 15, 1910. Her father, Stanislaw Krzyzanowski, was a physician, and also one of the first Polish Socialists, who firmly believed one should love and respect all people regardless of their ethnicity or social status. Practicing what he preached, he regularly treated the Jews and the underprivileged, when others often ignored them. When Irena was only seven years old her father died in the great typhus epidemic that broke out in 1917. While others fled the area, he refused to leave, staying behind to provide medical help to those around him. He contracted the disease and soon died from it. Just before he expired he told his young daughter, "If you see someone drowning, you must jump in and try to save them, even if you don't know how to swim." These words, and the example of her father, would help mold the character of Irena. She embraced her father's loving, sacrificial spirit, and his willingness to embrace all men as equals.
Even though a Christian (she was of the Catholic faith), Irena had a great affection for the Jewish people and often stood up for them when they were being put down. For example, in the early 1930's at the Warsaw University, Jewish students were forced to sit separately from the other students in the classrooms. On one occasion, Irena went and sat with the Jews. The teacher ordered her to move, and she responded defiantly, "I'm Jewish today!" She was immediately expelled from the university. In 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland, which unleashed a reign of terror and destruction unlike anything they had ever seen. The primary target became the Jews. It is estimated that there were about 3 million Jews living in Poland at this time, with around 375,000 of them living in Warsaw (the largest Jewish community in all of Europe). Hitler was determined to exterminate them all, and as he carried out his "Jewish solution" the Germans made it clear to the Polish people that anyone offering any help to or harboring the Jews would be executed (and some 700 people were dispatched for this very reason). The Germans soon began herding the Jews of Warsaw into a sixteen block area, which was then walled off from the rest of the city. Hundreds of thousands of them were kept here under horrific living conditions, awaiting transport to various labor/death camps. This area came to be known as the Warsaw Ghetto, and it is estimated that as many as 5000 people per month perished there due to disease, starvation, and purges by the Germans. For an excellent depiction of the conditions in Warsaw at this time, I would highly recommend the 2002 Oscar winning movie "The Pianist" starring Adrien Brody (who won "Best Actor" for his performance).
At the time of the occupation of Poland by Germany, Irena Sendler was a young wife, mother, and a senior administrator with the Warsaw Social Welfare Department, an organization that provided meals, financial aid, limited medical care, and other social services to the elderly, the orphans, and the poor of the city. After the Jews were barricaded within the now infamous Warsaw Ghetto, and when disease inevitably began breaking out in this highly congested and impoverished area, the Nazis became concerned that it might spread to other parts of the city (and to their own troops). Thus, they issued a limited number of permits to certain Poles to enter the ghetto for the purpose of trying to stem the tide of the various contagious diseases. Irena Sendler saw her opportunity to come to the aid of these oppressed people, and so she sought and was able to acquire a pass from the city's Epidemic Control Department. She then began entering the ghetto daily bringing food, medicine and clothing. After passing the guards and entering the ghetto, she would place a Star of David armband on her arm to let the Jews know she stood with them, not against them, and was sympathetic to their plight.
It did not take Irena long to realize that her ministrations were only prolonging the inevitable. These people were destined by the Germans for death, and the ghetto was just a "holding area" where they awaited their execution. There was no way she was going to be able to save them, yet she felt she had to do something. She joined the Zegota, a group organized by the Polish underground resistance to help as many Jews as they could. Irena decided the best way she personally could help this movement was to rescue the children from the ghetto. She began speaking secretly to the Jewish families during her daily trips to the ghetto, urging those with infants or small children to give them to her so she could smuggle them out. Although many would not do so, preferring to die together as a family, quite a few families, realizing that they were doomed, chose to give their little ones a chance at life. Irena Sendler, in a letter to the Polish Parliament written decades later, stated, "Every child saved with my help is the justification of my existence on this earth." That number turned out to be over 2500 children!! She carried them out in sacks of clothes, coffins, body bags; crawled with them through the underground sewers; she even began taking a large dog with her into the ghetto which she had trained to bark whenever Germans came near so they would not hear the infants cry (although many of the infants she would sedate before taking them out). The Jewish families and children knew her only by the code name "Jolanta."
Through the underground resistance organization she was able to get forged documents for these children, and she placed them with Christian families or placed them in orphanages run by the Catholic Church, thus effectively hiding their Jewish roots. Her intent, however, was not to "convert" these little ones to Christianity, but merely to provide them a place where they would be safe until after the war. She also wrote the name of each child, who the parents were, and where the child had been placed on small pieces of tissue paper or cigarette paper, keeping all these names in a glass jar which she buried under a tree in a neighbor's yard within clear view of the German barracks. After the war it was her intention to dig the jar up and do her best to return each child to its parents, or any surviving relative. In an interview with ABC News many years later, Irena said, "When the war started, all of Poland was drowning in a sea of blood. But most of all, it affected the Jewish nation. And within that nation, it was the children who suffered most. That's why we needed to give our hearts to them." To the credit of the Polish Christian community, Irena reported, "No one ever refused to take a child from me," even though by harboring a Jew (even an infant) they faced immediate execution if discovered. One of the hardest aspects of her work, she said years later, was hearing the cries of the children and parents as she took the little ones away. She wrote, "In my dreams I still hear the cries when they left their parents." Their pain would haunt her all her life, even though she knew that her efforts were saving the lives of thousands.
Unfortunately, the Germans soon caught on to what she was doing, and on October 20, 1943 the Gestapo arrested her and threw her into the notorious Pawiak Prison where she was severely tortured (both of her legs and feet were broken). She was then sentenced to death by firing squad. During endless days of torture they sought to discover the location of the children, and the names of all who helped her. Irena never broke, however, and refused to reveal the name of a single child or accomplice, even though she was tortured without mercy. She was literally willing to suffer and die that others might live! Someone within the Zegota, however, managed to bribe one of the German guards, who placed her name on the list of people executed (and then allowed her to be secreted away to a safe place). The word went out to all of Warsaw that she was dead, which the Germans hoped would deter others from engaging in similar efforts to rescue the Jewish children. Irena went into hiding, although she continued to do what she could behind the scenes to help the resistance movement. Eventually, the Germans realized she was still alive, and they caught and sent the guard involved to the Russian Front (which was, in essence, a death sentence ... or worse). A reward was offered for her capture or death, but she was never apprehended.
After the war, Irena Sendler dug up the glass jar of names and spent several years trying to locate the families of "her children" (as she came to think of them). Sadly, many of the parents were exterminated in the death camps, as were siblings and extended family members. Yet, she was able to return some of the children to loved ones, for which the families were eternally grateful. Many years later, after her exploits came to the public attention, her picture appeared in a Polish newspaper, along with her story, and she began getting calls from people who recognized her. Sendler wrote, "A man, a painter, telephoned me, saying, 'I remember your face. It was you who took me out of the ghetto.' I had many calls like that." Over the years many of "her children" would come to visit her in Warsaw (where she lived her entire life), getting to know and developing a deep love for this woman who risked her own life to save them.
For the most part, however, the world outside Poland was completely unaware of the heroics of this fabulous woman. She continued to live her life quietly and humbly as a social worker in Warsaw, with no desire for fame or fortune. She would likely have slipped away into total obscurity had it not been for a high school teacher in rural Kansas in 1999 and three of his students. The girls (Elizabeth Cambers, Megan Stewart, Sabrina Coons) were looking for a research project for the Kansas State National History Day competition. Their teacher, Mr. Norman Conard, gave them a brief paragraph about Irena Sendler that had appeared in a larger article in a 1994 issue of U.S. News & World Report titled "The Other Schindlers." The girls, as well as their teacher, thought the figure of 2500 children saved was a misprint in the article (thinking it must have been only 250 children). They decided to do some investigating to discover the truth, and in the course of their investigation discovered that Irena Sendler was still alive. To make a long story short, they discovered the heroism of this woman and turned it into a short play titled "Life in a Jar." As a result, they were the winners of the competition in the year 2000. This play took on a life of its own, and has now been performed hundreds of times in this country, Canada and Poland. It was adapted to television and appeared on CBS and the Hallmark Hall of Fame as "The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler." American filmmaker Mary Skinner began working on a historical documentary film based on her life in 2003 titled "Irena Sendler: In the Name of Their Mothers." This was finally released on PBS in May, 2011. Some of these works are now also available on DVD. To learn more about this remarkable woman, and how you can participate in sharing this fabulous account of courage under fire, check out The Irena Sendler Project.
After word about this remarkable woman's work on behalf of children in the Warsaw Ghetto during the Nazi occupation of Poland got out to the public, she began to receive a great deal of attention from around the world and numerous honors were bestowed upon her. She has been honored by a number of international Jewish organizations, as might be expected, and was even made an honorary citizen of Israel. On November 10, 2003 she was awarded Poland's highest honor: The Order of White Eagle. That same year Pope John Paul II sent her a personal letter praising her for her loving service to others during the war. In 2007 she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, however the award was given to Al Gore for his work on global warming instead. The International Federation of Social Workers, and countless others around the world, were understandably "deeply saddened that the life work of Nobel nominee Irena Sendler, social worker, did not receive formal recognition. Irena Sendler and her helpers took personal risks day after day to prevent the destruction of individual lives -- the lives of the children of the Warsaw ghetto. This work was done very quietly, without many words, and at the risk of their lives" [IFSW President David N. Jones]. Poland's President, in a special session of Parliament, didn't mention Al Gore, but he did honor Irena for saving "the most defenseless victims of the Nazi ideology: the Jewish children." He called her "a great heroine who can be justly named for the Nobel Peace Prize. She deserves great respect from our whole nation." In May, 2009 she was posthumously awarded the Audrey Hepburn Humanitarian Award. And these are just a few of the honors bestowed upon her. She richly deserved them all, although she herself never felt she was worthy of such acclaim; she did not see herself as a heroine. She once stated, "I only did what was normal. I could have done more. This regret will follow me to my death."
Irena Sendler (the photo to the left was taken in 2005) was a truly beautiful woman, both inside and out; a genuine lady in every sense of the word; one who perceived far better than most the core principles of the Christian faith and how to actually live those principles in the midst of a wicked and fallen world. Near the end of her life, in an interview with ABC News, she expressed her concerns for the world about her, voicing her fears that mankind had learned little from the horrors of the past. She said, "After the second World War it seemed that humanity understood something, and that nothing like that would happen again." However, she then sadly commented, "Humanity has understood nothing. Religious, tribal, national wars continue. The world continues to be in a sea of blood." She then added, in a voice soft but firm, "The world can be better, if there's love, tolerance and humility!" AMEN! This awesome servant of God and man passed from this life in Warsaw as a result of pneumonia on May 12, 2008 at the age of 98. May the Father welcome her into His eternal embrace. "Rejoice for her, all you who love her; be exceedingly glad with her, all you who mourn over her, ... For thus says the Lord, 'Behold, I extend peace to her'" (Isaiah 66:10, 12). There is no doubt in my mind that we will one day walk with this saint in a better world where there are no more tears!
One Bread, One Body
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From a Reader in Manila, Philippines:
I am a Public Affairs writer for a telecommunications company in the Philippines, and also very active in the youth ministry of my church here in Alabang, Metro Manila. I was able to read your online Reflections (Issue #151: "Unequally Yoked Together") when I Googled the phrase "Do not be yoked with unbelievers" (2 Cor. 6:14). Thank you for writing about this particular topic. Your insights have opened my eyes and enabled me to understand the Scriptures better. I hope to share this with my discipleship group. Again, thank you, and God bless you.
From a Reader in Connecticut:
Your last article ("Unchained, But Conflicted" -- Issue #531) was by far one of the most important Reflections to date! Your analogy of a POW is exactly what many Christians feel when breaking free of legalism. The fear of rejection and of hell are powerful forces imprinted upon us all from birth, and they can be difficult to overcome. With God's help, and your patient understanding and wise counsel, my wife and I survived the "shattered faith syndrome." You helped us realize that God does have a plan for our lives, even if it isn't what family and friends had planned for us. As we continue to grow, we are healthier mentally, emotionally and spiritually, and we get stronger each day. I want you to know that your ministry helped save us from certain destruction. As you say, it does get better. I have found that quiet time alone with God in prayer, a good cup of coffee, my Bible, and an open mind, along with your Reflections, are a good way to start each day!
From a Reader in Illinois:
Good article! I especially liked the email you shared from the lady. It's hard enough being an open-minded man in our tribe. I can't imagine how difficult it must be for a woman, who is forbidden to speak up even with an opinion that is consistent with that of the legalists, much less to challenge them.
From a Reader in Texas:
(her father is a leader with Contending for the Faith)
Another wonderful Reflections, Al. May the Lord give that young woman the strength she will need to get out and stay out!! May He bring someone alongside her and her children to walk with them in their lives, showing them the way of His love. My prayers are with her. Also, I pray that He will continue to richly bless you as you help people to escape from legalism (just as you did for me, dear brother). It is unimaginable how hard it is to stand up to the legalists as a woman, but it can be done in Christ who strengths us. I am living proof.
From a Reader in Georgia:
Al, buddy, you've been living with that wonderful wife of yours long enough to know that if she had it to do over, knowing what she knows now, she would have gotten you started preaching Freedom in Christ even sooner than you did!! I agree with your advice to the young woman. Only Jesus can set one free from legalism, and she shouldn't take it upon herself to try going up against it with a young family ... especially as a woman! After all, what leader in a legalistic Church of Christ is going to listen to a person who isn't even allowed to pass a Communion plate?!
From a Reader in California:
I truly appreciated this Reflections ("Unchained, But Conflicted") because it really hits at the emotional aspect of our struggle for freedom in Christ. I think your lady correspondent illustrated in bold letters that freedom brings choices. The slave has no choices. It is up to the free man and woman to wrestle with his or her Creator and submit themselves to His guidance in the choices we make of our own free will. I believe that this freedom in Christ, while somewhat disconcerting at first, is more than compensated by a joyful walk with a loving Brother and Friend: Jesus. I vividly recall debating with myself as to which choice to make: stay or go? Eventually, after much prayer, fasting, and crying out, the Lord made it very clear that I needed to go. I have not questioned that decision because the Lord has shown me time and time again that it was the right one. I believe that your own conviction to stay was based on your ability to reach out to folks within our movement and enable them to understand freedom in Christ "in their own language." Thank you for your Reflections ministry!! I know many people have been changed as a result of the Lord speaking through your words!
From a Pastor in California:
I just completed reading Reflections #531 in which you responded to the 30-year-old woman fed up with the legalism of her church fellowship. The question of whether to stay or leave is a serious one. I would submit that when there are small children in the equation, as in this woman's case, it is critical to remove those children out of that toxic environment -- yesterday!! The woman mentioned that freedom is "lonely." Not necessarily. It is only lonely if you stay in that culture and allow yourself to be isolated and to become a punching bag for the legalists. Repositioning oneself among genuine believers who know how to love and forgive and uplift and encourage and bless and inspire will completely remove that loneliness. For the sake of those kids, leave and find a fellowship of believers who care more about people than their pet opinions and controlling their personal fiefdoms. Thanks for a very insightful piece, brother!!
From a Minister in Arkansas:
As a preacher within our tribe for 30 years who advocated a gracious freedom in Christ, I found myself wounded by friends, ignored by colleagues, and finally cast out of one church before I had the chance to get my children through their high school. You are blessed indeed that none of your children were mortally wounded in your fight for freedom among our folk, but I fear that two of my sons were so badly hurt by the treatment of legalistic brethren that they have wandered far from the Lord. We tried to model the Christ-like walk at home, but the blatant hypocrisy of those who called themselves "Christians" deeply scarred all of our children. Your advice to the mother who wrote you about what she should do in the face of legalism in her church is absolutely right. She needs to get her kids out of there and into a fellowship where the "daily walk" matters, and not some vaunted sense of legalistic perfection. Thank you, Al. I'm glad that you decided to please God and go where He leads you. Please pray for my wandering children!!
From a Minister in Texas:
I completely understand the sentiments and convictions presented in your article "Unchained, But Conflicted." I have struggled with the same thing. My family and I have endured some significant punishment in a few places. I can also say, though, that by the grace of God I have believing children, and that they were willing to learn and grow from our experiences, rather than becoming bitter. Prayer and study have been wonderful avenues in this regard, and I thank God for answered prayers. Thank you, brother, for your Reflections. Keep up the good work.
From a Reader in Florida:
Excellent article, as usual. I praise God that I finally found a Church of Christ that has actually restudied and rethought all the "patterns handed down to us." We are not at all legalistic, and we try to be a light in the world and to the world. I was not good at being silent in the past congregations I attended, and one told me to leave and start my own church! I did leave, but went to a less conservative congregation, and, of course, continued to speak out there. I got into some "trouble," but many more people agreed with me (and with you in your writings). Keep fighting the good fight of faith, Al. You are helping us all.
From a Reader in Oklahoma:
My conversion from legalism closely parallels the young lady who wrote to you. I also found a good church about an hour away, and fortunately I don't have several kids to get ready. I still attend the local legalistic church on occasion, but she is right -- you just can't reach people who are immersed in what could be clearly classified as a cult.
From a Minister in New Jersey:
Well, I'd better drop you a note and let you know that we are still alive and well in NJ. Just two quick thoughts. This week's Reflections, and the email from the young lady that prompted it, will catch the eye and sympathy of many of us who are regular readers. I know you get many similar stories. If there is a way and a desire, I'm sure that many of us would allow you to give our names and email addresses to those feeling so alone in their struggle with legalism, and whom you determine may be geographically near us who could lend encouragement. It would, of course, be up to them to reach out to us if they so desire. If you come in contact with one who is near me, I offer any service I may be able to render to such a one struggling with their freedom (just send them my name and email address, and, if they desire to, they can contact me). Second: I don't know if you are personally familiar with Gary Collier and the new book he is just now releasing, but I read an early draft and recommend it. It is related to your approach to Mark's ending. Click Here to check it out. Have a blessed week.
From a Reader in Arizona:
I have just read and forwarded your article "Unchained, But Conflicted" to a number of brothers and sisters in Christ. Thank you so much for including a lengthy portion of the sister's letter to you. Her husband and her children are richly blessed by such faith and love.
From a Minister/Author in Florida:
Many of us have struggled with the question as to whether to stay or leave the Churches of Christ denomination. Your explanation for staying, and the struggles and even regrets related to your decision, was very deeply appreciated, and also something with which many of us can identify. You know my own story of 50+ years of ministry among Churches of Christ as an evangelist, missionary and elder. After all those years of exciting ministry, six years ago I did feel led by the Lord to leave the "movement of my family tradition" for the protection of the faith and hearts of younger Christ-followers (literally: my sons and daughters in the faith). Their lungs could not endure the faith-destroying inhalations of "dust bowl" legalism! Protecting the "lambs: the newer believers" must be our highest priority as shepherds according to our Chief Shepherd. God bless you, dear brother.
From a New Reader in Texas:
Please add me to your list of subscribers to Reflections. Also, I have a question: Is there a congregation you associate with (or know of) in the ------, TX area that holds and teaches views similar to yours? I attend a very legalistic group in the area and, though there is no sign of that changing any time soon, I would like to know of some options that are there when the time does come. Thanks for all your good work. God bless you.
From a Reader in Kentucky:
I read your last Reflections, and I can relate to and feel this lady's pain and despair. She accurately describes "the system," and, sadly, the ones that cannot recognize it are the legalists, who are, in their minds, fighting a "holy war." For me, I was indoctrinated into this "system" in the late fifties, and spent decades being taught how to defend "the system," even to the point of verbally assaulting others. My rigid views closed the door to any opportunity to socialize with anyone different. After my retirement in 2004, it was suggested by my wife that I read the Bible every year. This has resulted in much study, and in the discovery that "the system" could very well be man-made. Of course, anyone who reads the Bible with an open heart and mind has already discovered this truth. While in "the system" I never felt spiritually happy or complete, and this was always a big concern to me. There is a congregation in our area that has been labeled "liberal," and thankfully God has led us to them. They have active, caring elders and deacons whose main objective is to worship and serve God to the best of their ability. As Billy Graham said in one of his early sermons, "I believe the true church of Christ consists of ALL believers."
From a Minister in Kansas:
I would like to request a signed copy of your book Down, But Not Out (I've enclosed a check). A friend and former co-worker in Florida and I are both studying over this difficult subject in order to truly help people in each of our respective ministries. We also want to be able to discuss your book when I go back down to Florida in July for the North American Christian Convention. I really appreciate and learn so much from your Reflections articles. Thank you so much, brother, and may God bless you.
From a Reader in [Unknown]:
I would like your opinion on Christians being cremated. I live in a senior community and a lot of people are cremated here. Now it has become an "issue" in our church! I'm just looking for your thoughts on the matter. Thanks.
This question has come up time and again over the years, and it greatly troubles some individuals. I did a fairly in-depth study of this on September 26, 2003 and shared it with my readers (as well as others over the years who have shown an interest in this topic). That study may be read at -- Reflections #72: "May Christians Be Cremated? -- In Search of the Biblical Perspective." -- Al Maxey
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