REPOSTED FROM THE UK TELEGRAPH BLOG
I am ashamed to admit that I had never heard of Irena Sendler, whose obituary appeared in this morning’s paper. Hers is an awesomely humbling story, even by the standards of her heroic generation.
Irena Sendler was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize
A Polish Catholic, she spirited some 2,500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw ghetto, displaying casual and extraordinary courage. She kept a list of the children she had saved, hoping one day to reunite them with their parents – although, in the event, almost all lost their families in Treblinka. In 1943, she was arrested by the Gestapo and tortured. Her legs and feet were broken, but she refused to give up her list. She was sentenced to death, but rescued, whereupon – almost unbelievably – she went back to work.
Here, though, is the sentence that leapt off the page at me: “Last year she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, eventually won by Al Gore.” Al Gore! I mean, nothing against the old lardbutt – it’s nice to see ex-politicians doing something they believe in rather than giving themselves over wholly to the getting of personal wealth – but making a film is not the same thing as donning a yellow star and smuggling babies past enemy soldiers.
Our generation, as Danny Kruger put it in the best tract of 2007, is moralistic rather than moral. We are better at holding opinions about what governments or multi-nationals should do than we are at doing the right thing by our neighbours. Having formed our opinions, we become self-righteous in a way that the Irena Sendlers of the world couldn’t understand.
“We who were rescuing children are not some kind of heroes”, she said towards the end of her life. “That term irritates me greatly. The opposite is true – I continue to have qualms of conscience that I did so little. I could have done more. This regret will follow me to my death.” There is a haunting sincerity to that statement. You can’t imagine Al Gore saying any such thing, can you?