Wednesday, May 14, 2008


"Every child saved with my help and the help of all the wonderful messengers who are today no longer alive is the justification for my existence on this earth, rather than a claim for honour."

The words of Irena Sendler who saved 2,500 children from extermination. She has died at the age of 98.

Others too have tried to find a way to encompass the enormity of an act of virtue that seems beyond language.

Elzbieta Ficowska, one of those saved as a five-month-old baby in July 1942 and now the wife of a leading Polish poet: "It took a miracle to save a Jewish child. Sendler saved not only us, but also our children and grandchildren and the generations to come'.

And so we try to understand. The poet, George Szirtes, uses her obituary to explore the poetics of action - dread and numbness followed by 'the melting of that which is frozen into the otherworldly warmth of language'. The scientist Francis Sedgemore, in an unrelated post, comments on scientific evidence showing that "Morality is ... hard-wired into our neural network".

Thinking historically, we can see that the possibility of almost unimaginable cruelty is always with us. However, when it emerges, we also invariably find a Sendler; an ordinary person who achieves the extraordinary. This ethical heroism is an historical constant. Whatever the level of barbarism, it can be and is resisted. In that resistance lies the seeds of a future, different world, peopled by survivors and their rescuers. And history is our collective memory; we must commemorate our real heroes - and never forget.

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