Irena Sendler vs. Al Gore and President Obama? That isn’t even the point

  The reason this post is here is because I received a chain letter story featuring Irena Sendler that seemed to be more of a way to discredit President Obama and former Vice President Al Gore than educate the world about this wonderful heroic woman.   I don’t feel that using Seldler’s truly heroic story by coupling her name to a chain letter with inaccuracies, distortions and outright falsehoods honors her memory.   In this post, I wish to clear up misconceptions about the Nobel Prize, point out incorrect statements made in the letter and essentially de-couple the memory of Irena Sendler from current political controversies she has nothing to do with.

First off, Irena Sendler is a genuine hero.   She selflessly put her own life at risk to save the lives of hundreds of children.  If you’re looking for more information about Irena Sendler herself, as opposed to the chain letter that revolves around her:  there are many sources that go into more detail about her.  Here’s one account of her life:  The Irena Sendler story.

For the last four years, a chain letter has been floating around as a “tribute” to Irena Sendler, but then drifts off into an attack on Barack Obama and Al Gore and stirs up some phony controversy over them winning the award, but not her. (Early versions of the letter only mentioned Gore, and the Obama part was added later.)

I’ll reprint the text of the letter, as taken off of a post on Facebook, below:

“Look at this lady – Let us never forget!   The world hasn’t just become wicked…it’s always been wicked.  The prize doesn’t always go to the most deserving.

Irena Sendler died 12 May 2008 (aged 98) in Warsaw, Poland.   During WWII, Irena, got permission to work in the Warsaw ghetto, as a plumbing/sewer specialist.  She had an ‘ulterior motive’.

She KNEW what the Nazi’s plans were for the Jews (being German).  Irena smuggled infants out in the bottom of the tool box she carried and she carried in the back of her truck a burlap sack, (for larger kids).  She also had a dog in the back that she trained to bark when the Nazi soldiers let her in and out of the ghetto.   The soldiers of course wanted nothing to do with the dog and the barking  covered the kids/infants noises.

During her time of doing this, she managed to smuggle out and save 2500  kids/infants. She was caught, and the Nazi’s broke both her legs, arms and beat her severely.   Irena kept a record of the names of all the kids she smuggled out and kept  them in a glass jar, buried under a tree in her back yard.  After the war, she tried to locate any parents that may have survived it and reunited the family. Most had been gassed. Those kids she helped got placed into foster family homes or adopted.

Last year Irena was up for the Nobel Peace Prize. She was not selected. President Obama won one year before becoming President for his work as a community organizer for ACORN and Al Gore won also — for a slide show on Global Warming.


I’m doing my small part by forwarding this message. I hope you’ll consider doing the same…

It is now more than 60 years after the Second World War in Europe ended.  This e-mail is being sent as a memorial chain, in memory of the six million Jews, 20 million Russians, 10 million Christians and 1,900 Catholic priests who were murdered, massacred, raped, burned, starved and humiliated!  Now, more than ever, with Iran, and others, claiming the HOLOCAUST to be ‘a  myth’. It’s imperative to make sure the world never forgets, because there are others who would like to do it again.

This post is intended to reach 40 million people worldwide! Join us and be a link in the memorial chain and help us distribute it around the world. Please send this e-mail to people you know and ask them to continue the  memorial chain. Please don’t just delete it.”

When I read the letter, it struck me that the letter not only referred to “last year” when mentioning Al Gore’s Nobel Prize (and it wasn’t just for a “slide-show”) and the fact that Obama didn’t win in the year prior to his presidency. (Nor did he win it for being a community organizer for ACORN)  It seemed out of place with the rest of the story, like it was added by someone with an agenda to push.  This made me a little suspicious,  so I started doing some research on the Internet.

For the most part, the letter has the facts correct about Sendler, although it refers to her as a German, when she was, in fact, Polish.  It also states that she posed as a plumbing/sewer specialist, when as an employee of the Social Welfare Department, she had a special permit to enter the Warsaw Ghetto and no need to pose as a plumber.  They also fail to mention she wasn’t acting alone, but was a member of a group, Zegota, an underground Polish organization dedicated to the plight of the Jewish people in occupied Poland. Again, basic story line is true, and if you check it with someplace like Snopes, they would pretty much verify it.

Although one would hope that anything claiming to be a memorial for 30 million people would be factually accurate,  ( I think the carelessness mentioned above does reflect on the actual purpose of the letter) it’s the part about the Nobel Peace Prize and Al Gore and President Obama  that I’m concerned with.

I think that there are a number of misconceptions about the Nobel Peace Prize that cause some confusion here.  First, the Peace Prize is awarded only to the living, so the year Obama won the award (2009) she wouldn’t have been eligible.  But, more importantly, the Prize is also only awarded for “significant activities during the past two years“, so Irena Sendler’s activities wouldn’t qualify her for the award some 60+  years later, noble and selfless as the were.   Unlike some of the other Nobel awards, the peace Prize is not a “lifetime achievement” award.

Finally, the qualifications for the awarding the Nobel Peace Prize were set by the will of Alfred Nobel to be given “to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.”  Noble as they were, Irena Sendler’s activities weren’t really of this nature.   It should also be noted that there were 181 people who had been submitted as nominees for the award.

The Nobel Committee discourages organizations that make nominations from releasing the names people they nominate, so that judges are not swayed by political pressures.  The only reason we know for certain that Irena was nominated is that the Polish Government chose to reveal that fact.   There are, in fact, no “Official Nominees” and the committee will keep the actual nominees names secret for 50 years after they are submitted.

There is no controversy here.   One could take issue with the criteria for the award, but they’ve been long established, and certainly are nothing that Obama or Gore had anything to do with.  If you think that injustice has been done, then the proper organization to contact would be the Nobel Committee.

The “outrage” of various individuals such as Glenn Beck over this means they either didn’t bother to do basic journalistic research on the Peace Prize and it’s criteria, or they did, but saw an opportunity to take a swipe at Al Gore.

Again, please do not interpret any of this as trying to diminish the amazing story of Irena Sendler.  But I do think a more fitting memorial letter would include taking the time to make sure the basic facts (like her nationality) of the story are correct.  Not mentioning Zegota, or others that were involved does both those involved and Sendler a disservice.  Sendler’s actions are heroic enough that one doesn’t have to make her into a super-hero who all by herself saved 2,500 kids.  The authors of this letter are using the sacrifice of  Sendler and others to promote their own views, views that have nothing to do with either the holocaust or Irena Sendler.

If you do wish to learn more about Irena Sendler, here are a few links to where you can learn more:

Short student produced You Tube Film

“In the Name of Their Mothers”   PBS Documentary about Irena Sendler

2009 Hallmark Movie “The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler”

Both Movies are available on Netflix.