Irena Sendler was a Polish humanitarian who led a mission to smuggle Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto and provide them with safe shelter and fake identity documents. Born Irena Kryzanowski in Warsaw in 1910, Irena was raised in a Catholic family. Her father Stanislaw was a physician, but made very little money because he provided his services for free to the poor, including many Jews. In 1917, Irena’s father contracted typhus from his patients and died. The local Jewish community raised a sizable donation to support the good doctor’s widow Janina and daughter, but Irena’s mother declined, not wanting to accept charity. Janina moved to the less expensive town of Tarczyn and worked hard to raise her daughter, an exceptionally kind and intelligent child.
After graduating from high school, Irena began a course of study in law and Polish literature at the University of Warsaw. Because she also had to work, it took her ten years to receive her degree. During her years at university, Irena was spurred to activism by the discrimination she witnessed against her Jewish classmates. She vocally opposed “ghetto benches” – separate seating areas for Jewish students on campus instituted in the 1930’s. Irena also crossed out the “non-Jewish” identification mark on her student ID. Because of these small acts of resistance, Irena was labeled as a philo-Semite and a radical. For her remaining time in school, she was harassed and blacklisted from employment at any school in Warsaw.
In the early 1930’s, Irena joined a group of social workers led by Professor Helena Radlinska who were doing humanitarian work to help the very poor. She worked at a clinic servicing destitute single mothers and provided legal as well as social work and nursing aid. The clinic was later incorporated into the Warsaw government. Irena became a public health official in the Department of Social Welfare. She married Mieczyslaw Sendler in 1931. As looming clouds of war darkened Eastern Europe, Mieczyslaw was drafted into the Polish army. After the German occupation of Poland in 1939, Mieczyslaw was captured by the Germans and was imprisoned in a POW camp until World War II ended in 1945.
Meanwhile, the German occupation government ordered all Jews working for the Department of Social Welfare to be fired. All other employees of the department were forbidden from helping Jews in any way. Irena and her social worker friends were helping sick and wounded Polish soldiers. To help them get aid, she began creating false medical documents. Soon, and without anybody else knowing, Irena was creating another kind of false document: identity papers “proving” the Aryan identity of Polish Jews.
In 1940, the Nazis forced 400,000 Jews into the squalid, overcrowded Warsaw Ghetto, where life quickly became a hell on earth as ghetto residents found it increasingly difficult to procure food, water, and medical supplies. In her capacity as a public health official, Irena obtained a special permit to enter the ghetto, ostensibly to check for typhus. Irena and her co-worker Irena Schultz began secretly transporting medical and hygiene supplies into the ghetto, and soon was bringing food as well. Her feisty personality helped her overcome many obstacles. She had many Jewish friends who were trapped inside the ghetto, and on her daily humanitarian visits Irena was horrified at the suffering she witnessed. Every day residents died of starvation, or were shot in the street by Nazi soldiers and left to rot. Irena continued her visits, even after October 1941, when a new law made helping Jews a crime punishable by death, not just for the person providing the aid but for that person’s entire family or household. This draconian law stopped most Poles from helping Jews, but Irena only intensified her humanitarian efforts. She wore a Star of David necklace while in the ghetto as a sign of solidarity.
Irena was determined to do more to help Jews in the ghetto, especially children. As Nazi persecution intensified in 1942, thousands of Jews were deported to concentration camps. Displaying great bravery and ingenuity, Irena smuggled babies and toddlers out of the ghettos using disguise and misdirection to throw off the German authorities. She continued her work creating fake documents and finding safe places for Jews to hide. In September 1942, Irena was involved in the creation of Zegota, the Council to Aid Jews. At this point, tragically, most Polish Jews had already been murdered. The money and resources raised by Zegota from Poles sympathetic to the resistance went to maintain Jews already in hiding. Irena stayed in close contact with the Jews she was helping. During the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Irena set up emergency shelters while other members of Zegota produced identity papers and found more permanent hiding places.
Known by the “nom de guerre” Jolanta, Irena ran the children’s division of Zegota. She created partnerships with Polish convents, where she knew Jewish children would be safe. The children were given Christian names and taught Christian prayers to avoid detection, but it was important to Irena that the youngsters not lose their Jewish identities. She meticulously documented each child’s true name, family, and location so that she could reunite them with surviving family members after the war. She buried the lists of children in mason jars under the floorboards of her home.
Irena was arrested by the Gestapo in October 1943. She was taken to headquarters, where she was beaten by Nazi stormtroopers trying to get the names of other people helping Jews. The Nazis also wanted the names and addresses of hidden Jewish children. Even during torture, Irena did not betray any of the children or resistance workers. On November 13, Irena was transported to another location where she was to be executed by firing squad. Miraculously, activist Maria Palester, working with Zegota, raised money to bribe Irena’s guards. Irena was able to escape at the very last minute. She returned to Warsaw and went into hiding for a brief period, emerging in December to continue her activities as head of the children’s division of Zegota.
During this time, Irena served as a nurse in a field hospital in Warsaw, where she tended to wounded Polish soldiers. She also hid several Jews in that hospital. When the Germans finally fled Warsaw as the Russian army closed in, Irena worked with Maria Palester to transform the field hospital into an orphanage. Irena retrieved the jars with lists of Jewish children, but tragically almost none of their parents were still living, having been transported to Treblinka, a notorious death camp where over 870,000 Jews were murdered in the gas chambers. Irena worked to reunite the Jewish orphans with “their nation” and many wound up in Israel.
After the war, continued her work in the Social Welfare Department, where she focused on helping orphans, teenage prostitutes, and destitute families. She received many accolades and honors for her heroic actions during the war and was honored as Righteous Among the Nations by Israeli Holocaust Memorial Yad Vashem in 1965.
For saving Polish Jews during the Holocaust, including many children, we honor Irena Sendler as this week’s Thursday Hero.
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