A few precious acts of courage and decency took place during the World War II Jewish Holocaust by brave and compassionate people. Irena Sendlar was one of its greatest forgotten heroes. Unknown by most, this courageous Polish woman defied the Nazis and managed to smuggle 2,500 Jewish children out of the infamous Warsaw Ghetto.
When German tanks rolled into Poland in 1939, Irena was only 29. A petite Social Worker for the Warsaw Welfare Department, Irena stood just 4′11″, with lively, intelligent eyes set in a pretty, always-smiling face. Her appearance more resembled a porcelain doll than a fearless Resistance Leader. She used those innocent-looking attributes to her advantage.
She was born in Otwock, a small town just outside of Warsaw. At the end of World War I, a typhus epidemic erupted, and Irena’s father the local doctor, devoted himself to caring for the Jews in their town. “If you see someone drowning, jump in to save them,’ he told her, ‘their religion or nationality are irrelevant.’ He eventually contracted the disease himself and died when she was just 7 years old, but not before leaving a lasting impression on young Irena.
When the Nazis invaded Poland, Irena was a Senior Administrator in the Warsaw Social Welfare Dept. It operated canteens providing meals, money, and clothes for orphans, the elderly, and poor of the city. Through Irena, the canteens also provided the same for secret Jewish families. They were registered under fictitious Christian names, and to discourage Nazi inspections, were reported as being afflicted with the dreaded tuberculosis. She did this alone, as her husband was a POW soldier captured by the Germans.
In 1940, the Nazis herded 400,000 Jews into a 16 block Ghetto behind 10 ft. high walls, topped with barbed wire & surrounded by armed guards.
The Jews were provided daily rations of only 200 calories and no medicine. The deplorable conditions in the crowded Warsaw Ghetto resulted in typhoid epidemics and high death rates. At least 280,000 of those who survived disease and starvation were shipped away to the infamous Treblinka Concentration Camp. It was there Adolf Hitler’s Final Solution of the Holocaust took place with the gassing and incineration of the Jews.
By 1942, after over 280,000 Jews were deported to Treblinka, Zegota (the Council for Aid to Jews), a Polish underground group, was secretly formed. Sendler was so appalled by the conditions in the Ghetto that she immediately stepped forward and joined them. She appealed to her 10 closest colleagues to come as well, mostly women, some as young as she was.
To order to enter the Ghetto, Irena obtained a pass from the Epidemic Control Department to inspect the Jews, as the Nazis feared disease outbreaks beyond the slum walls. She visited the Ghetto daily, established key contacts inside and brought food, medicines and clothing in.
5,000 Jews were dying a month from starvation and disease, so Zegota decided they must help the children escape.
In 1943, Zegota appointed Sendler their Head of Jewish Children. Irena exploited her contacts with Polish orphanages, in order to make them accept Jewish children as ‘Christians’ to fool the Nazis. Many were sent to the Family of Mary Orphanage in Warsaw, and to other Catholic institutions run by nuns, who then found non-Jewish families to foster them.
Wearing a yellow Star of David in the Ghetto to show her solidarity and gain trust, Irena then began talking to desperate Jewish parents into giving up their children to her. The parents had a heartbreaking choice to make and Irena could afford them no assurances of the children’s safety, only that their life might be better outside the Ghetto.
For Sendler, a young mother of two herself, persuading parents to part with their children was a horrendous task. “Can you guarantee they will live?” the distraught parents asked. “I can only guarantee they will die if they stay!” The children’s cries when they were separated from their parents when they were given to Irena was heartbreaking. Finding families willing to risk their lives and shelter the children, was also not easy.
Nothing was more dangerous than hiding a Jew. If the Nazis found out, they’d kill your entire family.
Irena began smuggling children out of the Ghetto anyway she could: in an ambulance hidden under the litters – some in body bags – some buried under loads of goods, or in garbage wagons. One mechanic took a sedated infant out hidden in his toolbox. Some were carried out in potato sacks – others in coffins. She smuggled older children out through the city’s sewers to ‘The Aryan Side‘ of Warsaw. Irena even trained a small terrier who, when the hidden children would start to whimper, would bark and distract the Nazis.
The city was crawling with traitors, and the Gestapo were constantly on the lookout for escaped Jews. “You are not Rachel, but Roma,” she drilled the older children. “You are not Isaac, but Jacek. Repeat it a hundred times, over and over!” Irena knew that any child could be stopped and interrogated. If they were unable to recite a simple Catholic prayer, they could be shot on sight. She would wake them up during the night to practice the prayers.
Irena had Catholic identity papers forged and signed by priests so the children could be taken to orphanages and convents. She sent most of the children to Catholic organizations, knowing she could count on the Sisters hatred of the Nazis. No one ever refused to take a child. She made sure that each family hiding a child knew they must be returned to Jewish relatives after the war ended.
Sendler kept meticulous notes in code of the children’s original names and their new identities.
She kept the precious records on a fragile scroll in a glass jar buried beneath an apple tree in a park across the street from German barracks. She hoped to later locate the children after the war and inform them of their Jewish past. In all, the precious glass jar would contain the names of 2,500 children.
But it was Irena herself who entered the Ghetto day after day for eighteen months—and walked out each time with hidden children. Her life was in constant danger and ultimately, the Nazis began to suspect her numerous crossings. In 1943, the Gestapo raided her apartment one night. Informants had turned her in. She was arrested and immediately imprisoned.
Irena was the only one at Zegota who knew the names of the families sheltering the Jewish children. She was interrogated daily and tortured mercilessly by the Gestapo. During one brutal session, her captors broke both her feet and legs. But no one could break her spirit! She refused to betray either her associates or any of the Jewish children. Irena eventually received a sentence of Death by Nazi firing squad.
By then, the brave Irena welcomed death, which would spare her the constant fear of divulging her co-conspirators under torture. At the last minute, Zegota bribed a greedy German guard who helped Irena escape prison into the surrounding woods just as she was being led by him to her execution!
After her escape, Irena went into hiding in Poland for the rest of World War II.
Her sacrifice and its consequences prevented her from attending her own mother’s funeral. Nevertheless, with the help of the Polish Resistance and some 200 convents and orphanages, Irena and her helpers managed to save the lives of at least 2,500 Jewish children. Right under the noses of the Nazis.
After Russia liberated Poland in 1945, she dug up that glass jar she had so carefully buried and used the notes to track down the children she placed with either orphanages or foster families, hoping to reunite them with Jewish relatives. But sadly, most lost their families in the Treblinka Death Camp during the Holocaust, so they were formally adopted by their Christian foster parents.
The Polish Communists branded Irena a ‘subversive’ and she was largely unknown and unappreciated … except amongst the survivors. She lived out the next 50 years in anonymity, haunted by nightmares of the horrors she witnessed in the Ghetto. Irena Sendler – white-haired, gentle and courageous, lived a modest existence with her children in a Warsaw apartment. She worked as an administrator in the Polish United Workers Party and later joined the Solidarity Movement in 1980.
The now grown children knew her only by her code name: Jolanta.
But decades later, after she was honored for her wartime heroism, her picture began appearing in newspapers and the phone began to ring. “I remember your face!” they said. “You were the angel who took me from the Ghetto.” The children, now adults, kept in touch over her remaining years, many visiting her regularly.
Irena’s amazing achievement went largely unnoticed outside Warsaw. Until her story was uncovered in 1999 by 4 students at a rural Kansas high school, who began researching her for a national history competition. The 4 girls were intrigued by a single sentence their teacher showed them in an article: “Irena Sendler saved 2,500 children from the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942–1943.” They were convinced it was a typo. They soon realized there had been no mistake.
They wrote a short play, Life in a Jar, about Irena’s heroic actions.
After winning the competition, the media began to pick up on the story of this “Female Oskar Schindler” who eclipsed his famous list of 1,200 Jews saved. Popularized by National Public Radio, C-SPAN and CBS, it finally brought Irena Sendler’s story of bravery to the world.
The students never expected to be able to ask Irena herself any questions. They assumed she must have passed away years ago. They were in fact thrilled to discover that she was still alive! The girls wrote to Irena, who still lived in a tiny Warsaw apartment with family. They told her about their play, which had won the history contest!
When they learned she was already 91, their town raised money for the 4 students and their teacher, Norman Conrad, to fly to Poland to meet Irena in person. They wanted to learn more details about her amazing life, and especially the biggest question of all: Where did she find the courage to defy the Nazis?
The U.S. students visited Irena in Warsaw in 2001 and performed their play.
Media covered their visit, breaking nearly 60 years of silence. Sendlar has since been honored by numerous Jewish organizations and received The Order of the White Eagle, Poland’s highest honor in 2003. She has officially been designated a Polish National Hero and schools are now named in her honor. In 2007, she was even nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Yet it was not for her own sake that Irena was so pleased with the recognition. Rather, it was that the full work of Zegota was finally being recognized. Irena Sendler did not think of herself as a hero. “I could have done more,” she once said. “This regret will haunt me to my death.”
Her courage enabled not only the survival of 2,500 Jewish children but also generations of their descendants. Irena Sendlar lived a long life and passed away in 2008 at the age of 98. She was buried in Warsaw’s Powazki Cemetery—a place reserved for the elite among Poland’s scholars, writers, politicians and war heroes. Though surrounded by notable headstones, the grave graced with the most flowers and candles of remembrance is always Irena’s.
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