Irena Sendler (1910-2008)

The Amazing Woman Who Smuggled Children Out of the Warsaw Ghetto During the Holocaust

Every child saved with my help is the justification of my existence on this Earth, and not a title to glory.
Irena Sendler

Irena Sendler

Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

The identities of 2,500 Jewish children were hidden in a bottle buried in a back yard by the Polish Catholic woman who helped rescue them from certain death. The identity of this hero was also buried under the weight of Communist rule and condemnation for her activities. When the story emerged to the wider public, thanks to four U.S. school children, a humble hero was recognized and acclaimed.

Background & Context

Irena Sendler was born in Otwock, Poland, where her father was a doctor. He died in 1917 caring for poor Jewish people during a typhus epidemic, but passed on to her a sense of solidarity and care that crossed religious and ethnic lines. As a student Sendler was dismissed from Warsaw University for failing to comply with Jewish segregation laws. When the Germans invaded Poland, Irena immediately began to help Jews by delivering food and other supplies to them. She was a social worker with the Contagious Disease Department, where some of the staff was connected to Żegota, the Polish resistance. She registered Jewish families with fictitious Christian names, labeled their homes as infected with typhus or tuberculosis to prevent German inspections, then brought meals and social services to the families.

Helping Jewish Children Escape

In 1942, the Nazis herded all the Warsaw Jews into a sealed off district that became known as the Warsaw Ghetto. In a 16-block area of the city, a new wall imprisoned 450,000 Jews. Many people died of hunger and disease before the Nazis starting shipping Jews to the Treblinka death camp. Irena was chosen to head up the Żegota’s children’s department. As a social worker she gained access to the Ghetto where she would don a Star of David armband in solidarity with the suffering Jews inside. Along with her staff of 24 women and one man she began to smuggle Jewish children out of the ghetto as well as care for children who had escaped the ghetto by other means. She and her staff hid children under stretchers in her ambulance, helped them get out through sewer pipes, or carried them out in trunks or sacks. Desperate parents would ask, Can you guarantee they will live? Sendler could only guarantee they would die if they stayed. She later said, In my dreams I still hear the cries when they left their parents.

Carefully Keeping Track

Sendler carefully noted the names and family identities of each child and where they were placed so that after the war the children would know who they were and could be reunited with any surviving parents. The children were hidden with nuns and priests and placed in Catholic orphanages. She issued thousands of forged documents to protect the children. Eventually she and her staff helped 2,500 children escape. Knowing she was being watched and was at risk, Sendler kept the list of names on thin tissue paper in two bottles buried under an apple tree in her neighbor’s yard.

Arrest, Torture, & Escape

In October 1943 Irena Sendler was arrested by the Gestapo. They put her in the notorious Pawiak Prison where she was interrogated and tortured. The bones in her legs and feet were broken, leaving her crippled for life, but she refused to divulge any information about the children or her associates. Her execution was ordered, but the Żegota bribed the executioner who dumped her battered body in the forest and then wrote public announcements about her death. She escaped with the Żegota and continued her resistance activities until the end of the war.

Picking Up the Pieces After the War

Immediately after the war ended, Sendler unearthed the bottles and began the quest to find the rescued Jewish children and reunite them with their families. However, most of the parents and relatives had perished in either the ghetto or Treblinka. The children had only known her by her code name Jolanta, but years later when her picture was published in a newspaper she got many calls from people who said, I remember your face; it was you who took me out of the ghetto!

Digging Up the Truth on Irena Sendler

Irena Sendler at home in 2005

Irena Sendler at her home in 2005.
Mariusz Kubik/CC BY 3.0/Wikimedia Commons

When the Communists took over Poland at the end of World War II, Sendler was branded a fascist for her underground activities, and her story was suppressed. Though she was recognized by Israel’s Yad Vashem Memorial as one of the Righteous Among the Nations, few knew about her. Only when Communism fell in Poland did the word get out about the wartime heroism of this now elderly woman. In 1999 a teacher at a school in Uniontown, Kansas, encouraged four students to investigate the life of Irena Sendler, beginning with a snippet about Sendler in U.S. News and World Report in 1994. Those students, Megan Stewart, Elizabeth Cambers, Jessica Shelton and Sabrina Coons, began to research the story behind the sentence that had appeared in the news magazine. They then wrote a play based on their research titled Life in a Jar, a reference to the hiding place for the list of children’s names. Their play was performed hundreds of times in Kansas, then across the U.S. and in Europe, and many other students have gotten involved in the play and project.

Rescuing the Story of the Rescuer

Irena Sendler Memorial Plaque

Irena Sendler memorial plaque that was unveiled on what would have been her 100th birthday.
Jake/CC BY 2.0/Wikimedia Commons

Eventually the children met Irena Sendler, frail and in her 90s, and cared for by Elżbieta Ficowska, a Jewish woman rescued by Sendler when she was 5 months old. They returned to Poland five times, learning more of the story first-hand. They established a website about Irena Sendler that has drawn millions of readers. Through the play and the website, the story of the life and courage of Irena Sendler, which was suppressed for so long, has become an inspiration around the world. Michael Glowinski, one of the child survivors, told the Life in a Jar students, You have rescued the story of the rescuer.

Irena Sendler received many honors for her actions, but she never claimed credit. She said, I could have done more. This regret will follow me to my death. She also wrote in a letter that Ms. Ficowska read to the Polish Parliament when Sendler has honored by the Government of Poland for her actions,

Every child saved with my help is the justification of my existence on this Earth, and not a title to glory. Over a half-century has passed since the hell of the Holocaust, but its specter still hangs over the world and doesn’t allow us to forget.

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