Irena Sendler’s story is about an ordinary woman, born in Poland in 1910, who became extraordinary and inspiring because of her incredible courage and big heart. Irena was a Polish Catholic social worker who died four years ago in 2008 in Warsaw at the age of 98. During World War II, she and her collaborators saved some 2,500 Jewish children from certain death by smuggling them out from the ghetto.
The children who were taken by Irena were given new identities and placed with convents, sympathetic families, orphanages and hospitals. Those who were old enough were taught Christian prayer and how to make the sign of the cross so that their Jewish heritage would not be suspected. Irena kept a list of the names of the children she saved, in the hope that she could one day reunite them with their families.
Inevitably, Irena was arrested by the Nazis, then badly tortured and sentenced to death. With the help of the Polish underground group, she managed to escape. She retrieved her list of names and buried them in a jar beneath an apple tree in a friend’s garden. This list provided a record of some 2,500 names. After the War, she attempted to keep her promise to reunite the children with their families. Sadly, most of the parents had been gassed in a concentration camp.
Irena felt a deep sense of responsibility for her fellow human beings. She said: “I was taught that if you see a person drowning, you must jump into the water to save them, whether you can swim or not”. When honors were heaped upon her in the years after the War, she disclaimed that hers was any act of heroism. In a letter to the Polish Parliament she said: “Every child saved with my help is the justification of my existence on Earth, and not a title to glory”.
An MBA case study?
I recently read that the top business schools in the USA have a problem getting their MBA students to accept the role of ethics in business and to practice it in their subsequent working life. It occurred to me that these schools would stand a better chance of success if they were to use Irena’s story (and others like her) as a case study, rather than the usual story of business leaders and billionaires that are part and parcel of the traditional MBA program.