Ever since the death of Irena Sendler I have been thinking about the Holocaust. And bravery and tragedy. And how if an army of mothers ran the world we might just stand a chance.
If you’re like me, and had never heard of Ms. Sendler before reading her obituary, you wondered why. Given our hunger for tales of heroism, why had we not heard of the woman who smuggled at least 2,500 Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto? Not just smuggled them out, but carefully recorded their real names on little scraps of paper, buried in jars, in the hopes they could one day be reunited with their families. Why is there a Schindler’s List but not a movie devoted to a woman who saved many more lives (not that there is a competition in this department; as far as I’m concerned, they are seated to the left and the right hand of God himself.)
More importantly, though, how? How did she summon the courage? To risk her life at least 2,500 times when she herself was a mother with babies to protect. To talk other mothers into parting with their darling little children based on the desperate calculus that they might not survive the escape, but they definitely would not survive without escaping. It is almost too much to acknowledge that this happened even once; the actual scale: unfathomable. And these were the lucky ones.
As I rocked my little boy in the dark tonight, breathing deep the sweet smell of his damp, curly hair, I tried to imagine having to make that choice. To part with a little person you love more than you knew possible, realizing that the parting will terrify him and permanently destroy you, because you know that the alternative is worse. To know that the only way to protect your baby is to relinquish him to others to protect. For all those mothers who did the unthinkable and allowed Ms. Sendler to save their children . . . well, what can you wish? That they are at peace, I suppose. Doesn’t seem like enough.
His hair was damp because we’d gone for a walk in the rain. As we headed home, the sun came out and the rain eventually stopped. In one of the small but shining moments that motherhood affords, ones you know will stay with you forever, I got to show my child his first rainbow. We looked at it for a long time, talking about the colors and why it was there and where it was going. And it made me think again of Irena Sendler. And of how, as long as humans exist, we will create storms of such fury, it will seem we’re destined to destroy ourselves. But then out of the holocaust walks someone like Irena Sendler, who reminds us that faced with the worst our species can offer, a precious few will shine a light bright enough to show us the way home.