The week that Princess Diana died Mother Theresa died, too. I sometimes think that was God’s gift to that diminutive, saintly woman. Perhaps she noticed all the commotion surrounding Diana’s death, and so said to God, “Now would be a really good time for me to go, because no one would notice.” She didn’t want the world’s attention, though the residents of Calcutta certainly mourned her dearly.
Diana was an amazing woman, who was certainly given a raw deal in her marriage. If the question we’re asking, though, is who merited the most attention, I think Mother Theresa runs away with that prize. Yet we spent our tears on a dead Princess, rather than on a small, frail lady who had no beauty except the love that shone out of her. Diana touched lives; Theresa changed them.
But at least we know the name of Mother Theresa. Many just like her remain nameless, because too often those we make famous are not truly important, while those who are important are anything but famous! Last week, a 98-year-old Polish heroine died. You likely have never heard of Irena Sendler; I hadn’t until I read her remarkable obituary online. Yet Irena, who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize the year that Al Gore won, was someone everyone should know.
She was in her late twenties when Hitler invaded her country. She witnessed the Jews being rounded up and imprisoned in the Warsaw Ghetto. But she didn’t just bemoan the fates of her countrymen; she wrangled her way onto a sanitation committee, along with nine of her friends, and everyday snuck in food and medicines.
When it became clear that the Nazis were about to start liquidating Jewish families, though, Sendler felt it was time to start sneaking things out. And so she began, one child at a time, until she had rescued over 2,500 Jewish children and placed them with families around Poland. She wrote their names on tissue paper, followed by their clandestine Christian names and clues to their locations, and buried them in two different jars, so that the children could potentially be reunited with family after the war. I can’t imagine the agony the parents must have felt to have handed over their children to a stranger. But they gave them to Irena, and those children lived.
In 1943 Irena was caught and tortured, but she refused to divulge any information. She was sentenced to be executed, but the Polish underground paid a huge bribe to have her freed. And so they found her, with both arms and legs broken, lying in the woods. She recovered and continued her work.
If you see a picture of her on the internet, she looks like she is about to laugh. She had a tremendous sense of humour, which I’m sure she needed given the gravity of her work. Her greatest grief in life was that after the war, when she dug up those jars, she found that so many of these children had no living relatives to whom to return them.
Five years ago, when her story was uncovered by some American schoolchildren, she became very uncomfortable with all the adulation. What she did, she said, “was just a normal thing.” Why are people making such a big deal about it?
Something else occurred last week which perhaps Miss Sendler would have enjoyed. Prince Caspian, the second of the Narnia films, was released. In our world where self-esteem is the key virtue, and material success the mountain that we all try to climb, Caspian stands in stark contrast. Intrinsic to the movie are the virtues of duty, honour, and valour. Sometimes one must fight for something that is bigger than oneself; and in so doing one learns that self-sacrifice is both ennobling and rewarding.
Sendler knew about duty and honour and self-sacrifice. She put those things ahead of her own needs, and in so doing thousands of people are alive today. I am glad we have her story, and I am glad stories like Narnia are still being told, to take us to a world where doing the right thing was simply “a normal thing to do.” If only such a world could come again.