On the eve of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, a packed British Library conference centre heard the remarkable stories of three people: Erich Reich was four years old when he was taken on the Kindertransport from Vienna to London; Lili Stern-Pohlmann was hidden by a naïve but kindly German woman in an apartment block
requisitioned in Lwow. But the evening chiefly focused on the story of Irena Sendler (1910–2008). Lili got to know Irena in the last five years of her life and describes her as “a noble jewel in the crown of humanity”.
Organised by the British Library and the Polish Cultural Institute, the evening’s focus was childhood experiences of the Holocaust. Both Erich and Lili were children when war was declared, Erich escaping when his parents put him and his two older brothers on the Kindertransport, a British humanitarian scheme that ran between November 1938 and September 1939 and rescued nearly 10,000 children, predominantly Jewish, from Nazi-occupied territories. Lili meanwhile was nine when the Nazis invaded Poland, and her mother saved her life by bravely persuading the enemy, in effect, to protect her daughter. Yet Lili and Erich wear their experiences lightly: it’s their parents they hold up as courageous, not their childhood selves. Erich believes his parents gave him life twice; once when he was born and once when they put him on the Kindertransport, an act that almost certainly saved his life.
Mary Skinner’s 60-minute documentary, Irena Sendler: In the Name of Their Mothers (2011) tells the story of a network of Polish men and women who got more than 2500 children out of Warsaw’s ghetto. Irena Sendler, the catalyst and driving force behind this undercover group, was filmed towards the end of her life and the documentary includes her personal recollections – a white-haired old lady whose gentle demeanour belies the horror of what she experienced.
Sendler was 29 years old when the Germans invaded Poland in 1939. The following year, the Germans ordered a wall complete with razor wire to be built around the Jewish quarter in Warsaw. There were 3 million Jews living in Poland and more than 400,000 of them were crammed into the ghetto, forced to live in a space enclosing only 16 blocks of the city. German provision of food in the ghetto amounted to 250 calories a day per person, and by 1941 tens of thousands had died of cold and disease. Children were left dead from starvation on the street – harrowing footage of which appears in Skinner’s film.
Sendler’s identity papers as a Polish social worker allowed her access to the ghetto, and she began smuggling Jewish orphans out, procuring false documents to identify them as Catholic. The risks were high: by 1941 the Nazis had decreed that any assistance to Jews was punishable by death. In July the following year a further order was posted on the Ghetto walls: 5,000 Jews were to assemble every day at the station for ‘relocation’. After the first few trains, news reached those left behind that they were taking people to Treblinka, an extermination camp.
Daily transports to Treblinka continued throughout the summer of 1942 – the ghetto was shrinking fast. It was at this time Sendler reached a tipping point: she saw her old friend Dr Janusz Korczak (1878–1942) who ran an orphanage in the Ghetto rounded up and sent to the station. The children marched in rows of four led by Korczak, who looked straight ahead, holding a child’s hand on each side. He could have escaped, but chose to die with his young charges at Treblinka. It was then Irena realised they needed to get out as many children as possible, as fast as possible.
Irena and her network started to persuade parents to part with their children. This in itself was a horrendous task. “Can you guarantee they will live?” Irena later recalled distraught parents asking. No, she replied, but she could guarantee that if they stayed they would die. “In my dreams,” she said, “I still hear the cries when they left their parents.” Irena and her colleagues got children out through the sewer network; hiding them under stretchers in ambulances, sacks, trunks, even coffins. Once out of the ghetto, a network of safe houses helped the children temporarily to adapt to their new lives. The children then went to Polish families or found new homes in convents or orphanages. Finding Poles willing to shelter the children, thus risking their lives, wasn’t easy, but as many as 200 Polish convents found a place for them: “I sent most of the children to religious establishments,” Sendler recalled. “I knew I could count on the Sisters.” But getting people to help wasn’t the only problem. Blackmailers too were a plague to their work: they’d follow people out of the Ghetto, track down the houses where Jews were hidden, and blackmail those hiding them.
Irena kept meticulous lists of all the children: the child’s original name and their new Christian name were carefully written on tissue paper, which was then rolled up and placed in a jar beneath a tree in a neighbour’s garden. By April 1943, when the Nazis burned the ghetto to the ground, the jar contained the names of over 2,500 children.
At the end of the war 88% of Poland’s Jews had been murdered. But some children survived through the Kindertransport and the efforts of Irena Sendler who, right up until her death in Warsaw in 2008, proclaimed herself merely a ‘very good organiser’, not a hero. Her friend Lili is passionate about telling Irena’s story: “Had Steven Spielberg heard about Irena, we’d have had Sendler’s List, not Schindler’s.”
Since 1987 the British Library has collected audio recordings of interviews with Holocaust survivors and built up an oral history collection of the stories of 665 individuals. 289 of these recordings are now freely available on line as a resource for anyone around the world to listen to. Lili’s story can be found by clicking on the image below.
‘Life in a Jar: childhood memories of the Holocaust’ was produced by the British Library in partnership with the Polish Cultural Institute London.