Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Extraordinary women

Irena Sendler saved perhaps 2,500 Jewish* children from the Warsaw ghetto. She later said:

I continue to have pangs of conscience that I did so little
The Gestapo broke her legs and feet, dumped her unconscious by a roadside after an officer was bribed not to kill her, and she then continued to work with the Polish underground. She died a couple of days ago, in her late nineties.

If it is sexist to feel particular admiration and affection for elderly women of enormous courage, then I plead guilty. I had the privilege of knowing two. Louise Vidaud, who I wrote about when she died a couple of years ago. Elizabeth Furse, who befriended me when I was giving evidence against the fraudster and perjurer Darius Guppy, who she had known since he was a child - he was always a bad one, she told me in the corridor of the court. She lent me pain killers because I had broken a couple of ribs playing rugby that weekend, cooked me dinner in 'the only slum in Pimlico' where she lived ('Bring a lettuce, darling') and scornfully waved away any mention of her wartime work with SOE, when she was captured by the Gestapo, sentenced to death, reprieved in a swap of spies, then parachuted straight back into occupied France.

All those two tiny, birdlike, elderly women wanted was to continue with their work - Louise's attempts to rescue American POWs from Vietnam, Elizabeth as the hostess of a salon which no longer existed, bringing together the brightest young people, especially men - both adored men and were delightfully flirtatious with those they liked. Both were completely dismissive, well beyond the point of rudeness, of those they didn't like.

Alistair Cooke and Bill Deedes both continued to be influential and admired to the last, working into their nineties, but I can't think of any women who have held that sort of prominence into extreme old age. Sendler rescued twice as many people as Oscar Schindler, but lived in relative obscurity. There's only one possible explanation for this, and it is a very great disgrace for the rest of us. We can still, just, and only sometimes, value the voices of old men, but we don't seem able to do so with old women. In the bar where I sat reading earlier this evening, there was talk of one of the few surviving Dambusters, who sometimes drinks there, but I've never overheard anyone talk admiringly of anything a woman of that generation did.

Shame on us.

* What on earth is wrong with me? They were children, that's all that needs to be said.


Anonymous said...

The Queen Mum?

Anonymous said...

The fact that these children were Jewish was deeply meaningful to Irene Sendler and by extention should be noted as part of her story. Ms. Sendler's willingness to risk her own life to save Polish Jews, who were widely considered "other" by many Polish Catholics, is yet another facet of the personal morality/integrity that infused her moral courage. She chose not to share in the widespread anti-semitism of her community. There are many examples of Jewish survivors of the Nazi death camps who were murdered by their neighbors when they returned to Poland and tried to get their old homes and property back. In the context of the time and the culture, Ms. Sendler's actions are all the more significant. To risk sharing the penalties of being a member of a persecuted group when one is not requires that much more self-sacrifice and moral courage -- and it should not be disregarded.