Polish social worker Irena Sendler (1910-2008) saved 2,500 Jewish children from death in the gas chambers of concentration camps run by Nazi Germany during World War II. At the time, Poland was occupied by Nazi troops, and Sendler risked her own life many times over to smuggle young children out of the Warsaw Ghetto, where thousands of the city's Jews were walled in. Honored decades later for her work, Sendler scoffed at the idea that she had behaved heroically as one of the small number of Gentiles who helped rescue Jews from death camps. “The term ‘hero’ irritates me greatly,” a report by Kate Connolly in the London Guardian quoted her as saying. “The opposite is true. I continue to have pangs of conscience that I did so little.”
Born on February 15, 1910, in Warsaw, Sendler grew up both there and in a small town called Otwock, about 25 miles southeast of the city. During her childhood, Poland belonged to imperial Russia, and her family were practicing Roman Catholics, the predominant religion in the area along with the Jewish faith. Her father was a humanitarian-minded physician who treated Jews in Otwock during typhus outbreaks when other doctors refused to do so. He later died from the disease when Sendler was seven years old. She later recalled that it was a proverb often repeated by her father that served as the inspiration for her own actions: “If you see a person drowning,” she told Norman Conard in NEA Today, “you must jump into the water to save them, whether you can swim or not.”
Joined Resistance Movement
As a young woman, Sendler entered the field of social work, and was 29 years old when World War II broke out in the late summer of 1939. The origin of the conflict was Nazi Germany's occupation of Poland. Horrified by the Nazis' anti-Semitic policies already in place in Germany and now being implemented in Poland under the occupation, Sendler joined the Polish Underground, which aided Polish Jews. By then the Germans were deporting thousands of Jews to large-scale extermination camps on Polish soil, including Auschwitz and Treblinka.
In Warsaw, Sendler had a job with the social welfare department of the municipal government. In 1942, her work in the Polish Underground brought her to the newly formed Rada Pomocy Zydom, or Council for Aid to Jews, and known by the codename “Zegota.” This was an organization to help Jews, funded in part by the Polish government in exile, and those who belonged to it risked their lives, for in Poland under German rule, if a family was found to be hiding a Jew, all occupants of the house were ordered to be put to death. In December of 1942, Sendler was made head of Zegota's children's division, and given the code name “Jolanta.”
Wore Star of David
Earlier, in 1940, Nazi officials in Warsaw had started walling off a section of the city that became known as the Warsaw Ghetto, in order to isolate the city's 400,000 Jews from the rest of the populace. Conditions in the Ghetto were abysmal, with food scarce and poor sanitation leading to outbreaks of deadly diseases. Because Sendler worked for the city government, she received a special permit that allowed her to come and go from the Ghetto. Whenever she passed through its heavily fortified checkpoints, she wore a Star of David on her clothing—as all Jews in lands occupied by Nazi Germany were required to do by law—in order to make her less noticeable to authorities in her secret line of work, and also to show solidarity with the Ghetto's residents.
Sendler also began to carry forged papers that listed her occupation as nurse, which gave her increased access to the Ghetto. This proved especially true when a typhoid fever outbreak occurred and few Germans wished to venture inside to provide aid; instead, they were happy to let Poles do the dangerous work. Sendler's real mission, however, was to search out families with young children in the Ghetto and convince the parents to let her take their children to safety on the outside. There were orphanages as well as families in both the city and countryside who were willing to hide Jewish children, and as word spread that Jews elsewhere were being deported to work camps—which few realized were actually designed to exterminate Europe's Jewish populace via large-scale gas chambers—Poles like Sendler realized that to rescue children from such a fate had now become an urgent humanitarian mission.
Sendler smuggled children out of the Ghetto by various means. Some buildings had secret basements with tunnels that connected to the outside; there was also a municipal court building that had doors on both the Jewish and “Aryan” (non-Jewish) sides, and janitors who often looked the other way when such smuggling operations were being carried out. Often the children were hidden in tool boxes, crates, or other means and loaded onto trucks. Infants had to be quieted with medicine to keep them from crying and thus alerting guards at the checkpoints. There were also dogs who rode along on the truck and were trained to bark in order to cover up any suspicious noises.
Buried Names in a Jar
Once safely outside the Ghetto, the children were taken to host families sympathetic to their plight, or to Roman Catholic orphanages whose nuns were willing to disguise the children as Gentiles. The children received new names, false identity papers, and were given instruction in Catholic rituals and prayers in order to help them blend in. Sendler told her charges, “Do not remember your family, your ways or your one life; you must learn to survive,” according to Kirk Shinkle in Investor's Business Daily. In order to keep track of the children who left the Ghetto and began living under new identities elsewhere, Sendler wrote down all the relevant information in a special code on used cigarette papers she collected. These lists of names were then put in jars and buried in the yard of a friend's house at 9 Ledarska Street in Warsaw.
On October 20, 1943, the Nazi secret police unit known as the Gestapo raided Sendler's apartment and arrested her. She was taken to Pawiak Prison in Warsaw, a notorious place from which few emerged alive. There she was tortured and her legs and feet broken. She received a death sentence, but on the way to the execution site a Zegota operative managed to bribe a German guard, and she was able to flee. Her name never left the list of those who had been shot that day, however, and after that point she was truly underground. She managed to continue her work, however, and when World War II finally ended in 1945, she hoped to reunite many of the 2,500 children taken out of the Ghetto with their parents. By that point, however, the Ghetto was largely empty, and she was devastated to learn that few of the parents whose names were on her list had survived the Holocaust. Most of the Ghetto families had died at the Treblinka death camp.
Honored by Israel
After the war, Poland became a Soviet ally and fell under one-party Communist rule. Though Sendler was able to reclaim her original identity, she suffered some harassment because she had worked with “Zegota”, which had ties to the staunchly anti-Communist Polish government in exile. She married, but because of the campaign against her a son was born prematurely and did not survive. Most of her postwar career was spent helping to found orphanages and nursing homes, and she also worked for the Department of Education for a number of years. The first official recognition of her heroism came in 1965, when she was named one of the “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority of Israel. In 2003 she was honored with the Order of the White Eagle, the highest civilian decoration in Poland. Four years later she was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.
Sendler's wartime heroism was the inspiration for an educational project in the United States that began in the late 1990s. A high school teacher in Pittsburg, Kansas, named Norm Conard assigned four students to research a brief U.S. News and World Report article that mentioned her as one of the war's forgotten names. Conard believed that the magazine had erred in claiming that Sendler had saved some 2,500 Jews, for this number was a good deal higher than the number rescued by Oskar Schindler, a German industrialist named who ran a factory in Krakow and saved 1,200 Jews. Schindler's story was well known, thanks to the 1993 film Schindler's List that won an Academy Award for Best Picture. The students affirmed that Sendler had indeed saved that many lives, and their report became the basis for a play they titled Life in a Jar. It has been performed in scores of schools in both the United States and Europe. The students were also astounded to learn that Sendler was still alive, though like many senior citizens in the post-Communist world she was living on a very meager income. They began a fundraising effort to send money to her, and a local business leader was so moved by their work that he sponsored their trip to Poland to meet her in person in May of 2001.
Sendler was living in a nursing home in 2006 when a German academic named Joachim Wieler visited her. Wieler told Derren Hayes for the journal Community Care that Sendler remained baffled by the attention to her wartime service. “When you know that something is basically at stake, like real life, you do everything to save it. You don't talk about it and discuss it. You do it,” she told Wieler. She also noted that there were many others who played a role in saving the children, adding “I did not do it alone.”
Sendler died on May 12, 2008, in Warsaw, Poland.
Community Care, May 3, 2007.
Guardian (London, England), March 15, 2007.
Investor's Business Daily, February 4, 2004.
Kansas City Star, May 30, 2002.
NEA Today, September 2002.
Pretoria News (South Africa), May 17, 2007.