Poland, more than any other country, has commemorated tough, even unpleasant themes on its modern commemorative coins, including dozens related to the Holocaust and persecution of Jews.
In 2009 Poland honored Irena Sendler and two others who helped rescue some 2,500 Jews (mostly children) during World War II.
Sendler had been posing as a nurse so she could treat victims in the Warsaw Ghetto when she joined Zegota, an underground resistance organization, in 1942. With Sendler’s lead, some two dozen people – almost all women – spirited children to safety, using secret passageways or placing children inside luggage, even sedating them so their cries would not reveal the operation.
However, the operation was discovered, and Sendler was imprisoned. She slipped through the hands of the Grim Reaper many times in her career as a resister, and did so this time when her compatriots bribed a guard and she was allowed to escape instead of being executed.
Such a fate, however, befell many of the parents whose children were rescued. Though the children were provided false documents, Sendler created lists of their real names, burying them in jars, hidden to allow for reunions after the war. But reunions simply were not possible for most children as their parents were killed in concentration camps or otherwise scattered.
Sendler’s story may have remained unknown to the world, but for four Kansas students who traced it for a school project that resulted in the play, Life in a Jar.
In 2008, at 98 years old, Sendler died, having seen her legacy cemented through the play, which was turned into a Hallmark movie with Anna Paquin.
For coin collectors, the honor she received in 2009 is even better.
Sendler, Zofia Kossak-Szczucka and Sister Matylda Getter were honored on two coins in the “Poles Who Saved Jews” series. A circulating 2-zloty coin shows a hand breaking through a brick-and-barbed-wire barrier with the name of Zegota. Image of all three women appear on the Proof silver 20-zloty collector coin.
In 1965 the trio was proclaimed among the Polish Righteous Among the Nations recipients from Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust museum, awarded to those who saved Jews from extermination during the war.