There’s a statue of an elderly man playing chess on the corner of Madison and 37th Street. That man is Jan Karski, a Polish diplomat and soldier, POW and secret courier.
Karski is credited with bringing the plight of European Jews during World War II to the attention of the Western Allies. His 1944 book “Courier From Poland: The Story of a Secret State” became an overnight best-seller. Nevertheless, to his dying day he wished he could have done more.
In 1995, he told NPR’s Hannah Rosen that “the Jews were abandoned by all governments, church hierarchies and societies, but thousands of Jews survived because thousands of individuals in Poland, France, Belgium, Denmark, Holland … helped to save Jews.”
Karski is often called the man who tried to stop the Holocaust, but in fact there were also many women who bravely stepped in during World War II. And while some of them may be overlooked in the history books, each story is worth remembering.
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Irene Gut Opdyke
As a young Polish woman, Irene Gut worked as a housekeeper for a high-ranking German major during World War II. This gave her access to valuable information, enabling her to help those who were being persecuted. Irene was able to learn of a plan to wipe out an entire Jewish ghetto, including 12 Jewish people she had worked with. Through an incredible series of events, she managed to sneak them into the major’s home, keeping them safe and ultimately saving their lives.
In her later years, Opdyke published her book “In My Hands: Memoirs of a Holocaust Rescuer.” Irene’s story inspired the Broadway play “Irena’s Vow” in 2009. The truth of her message lives on today: “Love is stronger than hate,” and “One person can make a difference.”
Standing just 4’11” tall, 29-year-old Irena Sendler was a social worker when Nazi tanks rolled into Warsaw. She reached out to friends and, with their help, smuggled an astounding 2,500 Jewish orphans out of the ghetto through secret passageways and sewers, relocating them into people’s homes for safety.
The 2011 documentary “Irena Sendler: In the Name of Their Mothers” commemorated her actions and was broadcast on PBS. Director Mary Skinner, herself a daughter of a Polish Catholic concentration camp survivor, has said, “There are so many World War II films being done about men in battle, about military strategies, and the American and Allied victories. I thought, ‘who is speaking for the millions of civilians — millions of women and children — who endured war with as much courage as those soldiers’?”
The stories of Karski, Gut-Opdyke and Sendler each continued after the war: They survived it and spent their entire lives standing for truth, spreading the word about the horrors of the Holocaust, and the uplifting spirit of bravery. But not all those who risked their lives to save others faced the same fate; it’s important to remember that Poland was the only country under German occupation where helping Jews was punished by summary execution. Many of those who tried to save their Jewish neighbors paid the highest price.
Wiktoria and Jozef Ulma
Despite their own poverty, the Ulmas housed and protected eight Jewish people. One night in March of 1944, German police found the eight on the Ulma farm and executed them. They then murdered the entire Ulma family – Wiktoria (who was seven months pregnant), Józef and their six small children. In 2016, the Ulma Family Museum (muzeumulmow.pl/en) opened its doors in Markowa, Poland. The first museum of its kind, it’s devoted to those who risked their lives and the lives of their families to help the Jewish people during the dark days of the Holocaust.