Today we toured the presidential palace in Warsaw and afterwards we had the great honor and privilege to meet with Pani Irena Senderska-Rzońca, who was given the title of a Righteous Among the Nations. This title is given to non-Jewish people who risked their lives during the Holocaust to save Jews. The program began in 1963, 10 years after the establishment of Yad Veshem, the world Holocaust remembrance center. To meet someone that holds this title was one of the most humbling, most inspirational experiences of my life. Pani Irena (and those like her) is the definition of a hero, but if you didn’t know her, she wouldn’t strike you as anything other than a normal person.
Then again… she is just a normal person. I think that’s what struck me the most about today. As Pani Irena told her story, it sounded like something out of a fiction novel – her family protected a Jewish doctor and his wife and their son by hiding them in their attic for over 8 months, keeping them safe from the Germans. After the ghetto’s liquidation and the liberation of the Jews, the doctor returned to work. Some time later, Pani Irena’s mother became sick with typhoid and had to be admitted to the hospital – the same hospital in which that very same doctor worked. He was, therefore, able to help cure her mother. Pani Irena stressed that her family refused to apply for the title of the Righteous for a long time because they saw themselves equal to and even with the doctor and his family. They protected him and saved his and his family’s lives, yes, but he also saved a wife and mother of four children – therefore, they were even. It was an incredibly uplifting story, and even more incredible that we were lucky enough to meet with someone who has firsthand experience with something so terrifying and tragic.
The one thing that Pani Irena passed along to us, the thing she considered most important, was to always be kind to others. She said that “the youth today are good,” and that if we practice kindness and treat others as our equals, the world will be a better place. This was a very humbling sentiment, especially coming from someone who has devoted her life and herself to spreading kindness as much as she can. It also came to me at the most perfect time, at least from a personal standpoint. This year I have been struggling pretty significantly with depression, and it has been very easy to be closed off to the world, desensitized and unemotional and uncaring. This has definitely affected the way I am processing all the things I’m experiencing on this trip, and today was no different. Pani Irena’s message is exactly something I needed to hear, and I think I can speak for all of us when I say it was deeply impactful and moving.
Having the chance to meet Pani Irena today and hear her story is definitely one of the highlights of the trip so far for so many reasons. She was a beautiful, radiant soul who carries a strongly positive, loving energy with her and inspires it in others as well. The fact that we may be some of the last people to meet with people like Pani Irena makes us very lucky and honored to have been in her presence and heard her story, and we were given a mission to fulfill: spread the stories of Pani Irena and remember her most importantly by spreading kindness to ourselves and to others. Hopefully this blog post is just a very tiny start in accomplishing that. If I live to be half the woman that Pani Irena is, I will consider that a success.