Sendler, Irena°

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SENDLER, IRENA ° (1910– ), head of the children's section of the Council for Aid to Jews (codenamed Zegota), a Polish underground organization created in the latter part of 1942 and which operated primarily in the Warsaw area; and Righteous Among the Nations. In the early days of the German occupation, Sendler worked to alleviate the suffering of many of her prewar Jewish friends and acquaintances. As a social worker for the Social Welfare Department of the Warsaw municipality, she carried a special permit allowing her to visit the ghetto area, ostensibly for the purpose of combating contagious diseases. This afforded her ample opportunity to learn of the terrible conditions inside the ghetto and try to alleviate the suffering of the people there with additional clothing, medicine, and money. In the summer of 1942, Irena Sendler was invited to join Zegota, which was then in the stages of formation. Readily consenting to this, she had already assembled a group of people dedicated to her charitable work, including her companion Irena Schulz, and she developed a widespread network of contacts inside and outside the ghetto. Under the codename Jolanta, with the help of her coworkers, she arranged for Jewish children to be smuggled out of the ghetto and for sheltering them in secure places either with non-Jewish families or in religious institutions. "I myself had eight or ten flats where Jews were hiding under my care," Irena proudly recalled. The sheltering families received financial support from Zegota for their additional expenses. In October 1943, she was betrayed and arrested by the Gestapo, taken to the infamous Pawiak prison, and brutally tortured. Failing to elicit information from her, her inquisitors condemned her to be shot. However, unbeknownst to her, the Jewish underground operating in the Warsaw region had managed to contact and bribe one of the Gestapo agents, and on the day of her execution she was freed, although she was officially listed among those executed. Forced to stay out of sight for the remainder of the German occupation, Irena carried out her humanitarian activities from her hiding place. Irena Sendler explained that the motivation for her humanitarian work came from lessons learned at home. Her father was a physician, and most of his patients were poor Jews. "I grew up among these people. All my life, I had Jewish friends." She then added, "My family taught me that what matters is whether people are honest or dishonest, not what religion they belong to." In 1965, Irena Sendler was awarded the title of Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem.


Yad Vashem Archives m31–153; J. Kermish, "The Activities of the Council of Aid to Jews," in: I. Gutman and E. Zuroff (eds.), Rescue Attempts During the Holocaust (1978), 367–98; I. Gutman, Encyclopedia of the Righteous Among the Nations: Poland, vol. 2 (2004), 702.

[Mordecai Paldiel (2nd ed.)]