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Staff photo by Troy Stolt / A swastika is seen on a utility box just off of Riverside Drive on Monday, Sept. 14, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn. Several were painted on the Walnut Street Bridge and around the Bluff View Art District.

Vandals defaced the Walnut Street Bridge and other nearby public sites in Chattanooga with swastikas on the evening of Sept. 19. Adolph Hitler incorporated the swastika in the flag of the Nazi Party in the 1920s and later in the flag of Germany, 1939-45. Did the vandals realize the barbarous significance of their spray paintings?

A nationwide survey of U.S. adults, aged 18 to 39, released on Sept. 16, revealed that a majority of respondents had grossly inaccurate knowledge of the Holocaust. About 23% of respondents thought that the Holocaust was a myth or had been exaggerated. Another 12% stated they had not heard about the Holocaust. A majority of respondents thought that a Holocaust-like event could occur in the future.

Two hundred interviews were conducted in each state. States were compared in their knowledge of the Holocaust. Arkansas respondents had the poorest knowledge, followed by Delaware, Arizona, Mississippi and Tennessee. A majority of interviewees supported educational programs related to the Holocaust.

Nazi Germany and its allies killed six million Jews — two-thirds of the Jewish population of Central and Eastern Europe — from 1941 to 1945. Hundreds of thousands of Roma, Afro-Europeans and handicapped people were executed.

I recall no mention of the Holocaust during my high school and collegiate years in the Carolinas in the 1950s. Anne Frank's "Diary of a Young Girl" was my introduction to the genocide. The subsequent play and movie based on the book riveted my attention to the Holocaust and led to continuing study and accumulation of relevant books.

"Irena's Children: A True Story of Courage" by Tilar J. Mazzeo, published in 2016, is a valuable addition to the literature of the Holocaust. The narrative is centered on the Warsaw Ghetto. Nazi forces had entered Warsaw on Sept. 29, 1939, and immediately imposed tight restrictions on the city's 350,000 Jews. In the fall of 1940, German authorities forced the Jews into a walled ghetto of 1.4 square miles. Guards manned watch towers and roamed the ghetto, carrying out random executions. Tens of thousands of Jews and Roma from other parts of Poland were relocated to the ghetto, which was progressively shrunk. Starvation, outbreaks of typhus and tuberculosis, and violence inflicted by guards took horrific tolls.

Against this background, Irena Sendler, a diminutive, young, Catholic social worker helped organize a network of friends and associates to smuggle Jewish children from the ghetto to safety. She had a pass that allowed her repeated access to the ghetto under pretense of checking for epidemics. Anyone providing such help was subject to immediate execution along with every member of their household.

From July to September 1942, Nazis began mass deportations of ghetto residents to the death camp at Treblinka. Aware of their pending deaths, many Jewish parents handed over their children to Irena and her helpers, hoping that the children would be spared. Infants and children were smuggled through holes in the ghetto wall and through underground sewage tunnels. Infants might be hidden beneath dirty linens that were being taken from the ghetto. Once in a "safe" house, a child would be given a different name, perhaps a forged birth certificate, and then transferred to families or religious institutions outside of Warsaw.

Irena recorded birth names, appearance and clothes worn at the time of transfer on slips of paper, hoping that this information could be used to reunite children with their birth families after the war. She hid the papers in bottles which she buried. Most parents did not survive the war.

Under increasing suspicion, Irena was arrested by Nazi authorities and brutally tortured. She refused to identify her accomplishes and the identities of children whom she had smuggled. She was condemned to death, escaping after her guards were bribed.

The Warsaw Ghetto was eradicated in May 1943 after a month-long uprising by its remaining inhabitants.

Irena was credited with saving more than 2,000 children. Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Israel, honored her as "Righteous Among the Nations."

Contact Clif Cleaveland at ccleaveland@timesfreepress.com.

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