When Hitler and his Nazis built
Ghetto and herded 500,000 Polish
its walls to await liquidation, Irena Sendler defied the Nazis and saved 2,500 Jewish children
by smuggling them out of the Warsaw Ghetto. As a health
worker, she sneaked the children out between 1942 and
1943 to safe hiding places and found non-Jewish families
to adopt them.
Her achievement went largely unnoticed for many years.
Then the story was uncovered by four young students
at Uniontown High School, in Kansas, who were the winners
of the 2000 Kansas state National History Day competition
by writing a play Life in a Jar about the
heroic actions of Irena Sendler. The girls - Elizabeth
Cambers, Megan Stewart, Sabrina Coons and Janice Underwood
- have since gained international recognition, along
with their teacher, Norman Conard. The presentation,
seen in many venues in the United States and popularized
by National Public Radio, C-SPAN and CBS, has brought
Irena Sendler's story to a wider public.
Sendler was born in 1910 in Otwock, a town some
15 miles southeast of Warsaw. She was greatly influenced
by her father who was one of the first Polish Socialists.
As a doctor his patients were mostly poor Jews.
In 1939, Germany invaded Poland, and the brutality
of the Nazis accelerated with murder, violence and
At the time, Irena was a Senior Administrator in the Warsaw
Social Welfare Department, which operated the
canteens in every district of the city. Previously,
the canteens provided meals, financial aid, and other
services for orphans, the elderly, the poor and the
destitute. Now, through Irena, the canteens also provided
clothing, medicine and money for the Jews. They were
registered under fictitious Christian names, and to
prevent inspections, the Jewish families were reported
as being afflicted with such highly infectious diseases
as typhus and tuberculosis.
But in 1942, the Nazis herded hundreds of thousands
of Jews into a 16-block area that came to be known
as the Warsaw
Ghetto. The Ghetto was sealed and
the Jewish families ended up behind its walls, only
to await certain death.
Sendler was so appalled by the conditions that
she joined Zegota, the Council for Aid
to Jews, organized by the Polish underground resistance
movement, as one of its first recruits and directed
the efforts to rescue Jewish children.
To be able to enter the Ghetto legally, Irena managed
to be issued a pass from Warsaws Epidemic Control
Department and she visited the Ghetto daily, reestablished
contacts and brought food, medicines and clothing.
But 5,000 people were dying a month from starvation
and disease in the Ghetto, and she decided to help
the Jewish children to get out.
For Sendler, a young mother herself, persuading
parents to part with their children was in itself a
horrendous task. Finding families willing to shelter
the children, and thereby willing to risk their life
if the Nazis ever found out, was also not easy.
Sendler, who wore a star armband as
a sign of her solidarity to Jews, began smuggling children
out in an ambulance. She recruited at least one person
from each of the ten centers of the Social Welfare
Department. With their help, she issued hundreds of false documents
with forged signatures and successfully
smuggled almost 2,500 Jewish children to safety and
gave them temporary new identities.
Some children were taken out in gunnysacks or body
bags. Some were buried inside loads of goods. A mechanic
took a baby out in his toolbox. Some kids were carried
out in potato sacks, others were placed in coffins,
some entered a church in the Ghetto which had two entrances.
One entrance opened into the Ghetto, the other opened
into the Aryan side of Warsaw. They entered
the church as Jews and exited as Christians. "Can
you guarantee they will live?" Irena later recalled
the distraught parents asking. But she could only guarantee
they would die if they stayed. "In my dreams," she
said, "I still hear the cries when they left their
Irena Sendler accomplished her incredible deeds with
the active assistance of the church. "I sent most
of the children to religious establishments," she
recalled. "I knew I could count on the Sisters." Irena
also had a remarkable record of cooperation when placing
the youngsters: "No one ever refused to take a
child from me," she said.
The children were given false identities and placed
in homes, orphanages and convents. Sendler carefully
noted, in coded form, the children's original names
and their new identities. She kept the only record
of their true identities in jars buried beneath an
apple tree in a neighbor's back yard, across the street
from German barracks, hoping she could someday dig
up the jars, locate the children and inform them of
their past. In all, the jars contained the names of 2,500 children.
But the Nazis became aware of Irena's activities, and
on October 20, 1943 she was arrested, imprisoned and
tortured by the Gestapo, who broke her feet and legs.
She ended up in the Pawiak Prison, but no
one could break her spirit. Though she was the only
one who knew the names and addresses of the families
sheltering the Jewish children, she withstood the torture,
refusing to betray either her associates or any of
the Jewish children in hiding.
Sentenced to death, Irena was saved at the last minute
when Zegota members bribed one of the Germans
to halt the execution. She escaped from prison but
for the rest of the war she was pursued by the Gestapo.
After the war she dug up the jars and used the notes
to track down the 2,500 children she placed with adoptive
families and to reunite them with relatives scattered
across Europe. But most lost their families during
the Holocaust in Nazi death camps.
The children had known her only by her code name Jolanta.
But years later, after she was honored for her wartime
work, her picture appeared in a newspaper. "A
man, a painter, telephoned me," said Sendler, "`I
remember your face,' he said. `It was you who took
me out of the ghetto.' I had many calls like that!"
Irena Sendler did not think of herself as a hero. She
claimed no credit for her actions. "I could have
done more," she said. "This regret will follow
me to my death."
She has been honored by international
Jewish organizations - in 1965 she accorded the title
of Righteous Among the Nations by the Yad
Vashem organization in Jerusalem and in 1991 she was
made an honorary citizen of Israel.
Irena Sendler was awarded Poland's highest distinction,
the Order of White Eagle in Warsaw Monday Nov. 10,
This lovely, courageous woman was one of the most dedicated
and active workers in aiding Jews during the Nazi occupation
of Poland. Her courage enabled not only the survival
of 2,500 Jewish children but also of the generations
of their descendants.
She passed away on May 12, 2008, at the age of 98.