Friend of the Jews
could have done more. This regret will follow me to my death.”
World War II, Hitler’s Nazi regime built the Warsaw Ghetto,
a 16 block area in the city of Warsaw , Poland , and proceeded
to herd over 500,000 Polish Jews behind its wall to await annihilation.
While many non-Jewish Poles turned their backs, such was not
the case with Irena Sendler. Though her name is not recognized
by most, Irena Sendler in an unsung heroine who defied the Nazis
and saved 2,500 Jewish children from certain death by smuggling
them out of the Warsaw Ghetto.
in 1910 as Irena Krzyzanowski, she grew up in Otwock, a town
about 15 miles southeast of Warsaw . Irena was greatly influenced
by her father, Stanislaw, who was one of the first Polish Socialists.
His ideas were a great influence on her as she studied Polish
literature and was part of the leftist Union of Democratic Youth.
Irena’s heart for the Jewish people of her nation may have been
acquired by watching her father, a medical doctor, take care
his patients, many of which were of poor Jews.
an adult, Irena worked as senior administrator in the Warsaw
Social Welfare Department that ran the canteens of the city
when Germany invaded the country in 1939. Under her direction,
these canteens not only provided food, financial aid, and other
services for orphans, elderly, and poor but also clothing, medicine,
and money for Jewish families. To avoid inspections, the Jews
were registered under fictitious names and were reported as
patients suffering from highly contagious diseases.
the Warsaw Ghetto was built in 1940 to contain the nation’s
Jewish population, Irena was appalled. She was so horrified
by the conditions of the Ghetto that she joined the Council
for Aid to Jews, Zegota , organized by the Polish underground
resistance movement, and directed the efforts to rescue Jewish
children. At that time nearly 5,000 people were dying a month
from starvation and diseases.
order to gain access to the Warsaw Ghetto, Irena used her position
in the Welfare Department to obtain a pass from the Warsaw Epidemic
Control Department. She visited it daily with the aim of re-establishing
contacts, bringing food, medicines, and clothes. While there,
she wore a star armband as a sign of her solidarity to Jews.
of her most difficult tasks in rescuing the children was getting
the Jewish parents to agree to let her smuggle their little
ones out of the Ghetto. While she could not give them the guarantee
that their children would survive the escape, she could guarantee
that they would certainly die if they stayed. The cries of both
parents and children being separated continued to haunt Irena
her entire life.
order to succeed in her efforts, Irena needed help from the
outside. She recruited at least one person from each of the
ten centers of the Social Welfare Department. With their help,
Irena issued hundreds of false documents with forged signatures
and successfully smuggled approximately 2,500 Jewish children
to safety and gave them new identities.
children were taken out of the Ghetto in body bags, while some
were buried inside loads of goods. Some were smuggled out in
garbage cans, potato sacks, and coffins. They were also smuggled
out in ambulances as victims of typhus. One baby was even smuggled
out in a toolbox carried by a mechanic. A church in the Ghetto
was also used as a means of escape. The church had two entrances:
one that opened into the Ghetto and one that opened into the
Aryan side of Warsaw . The children entered the church as Jews
and exited as Christians.
it was difficult to escape the Ghetto, it was even harder to
survive as a Jew on the Aryan side. The rescue of a child required
the help of at least 10 people, most of which were recruited
from the local church. Children were first taken to units called
Pogotowi Opiekuncze, or caring units and were later given false
identities and taken to houses, orphanages, and convents.
Irena knew the children’s true identities and kept record of
them, and their new identities, in coded form. She placed this
information in glass jars and buried the jars beneath an apple
tree in a neighbor’s back yard, across the street from German
barracks. She hoped to one day dig up the jars, locate the children
and inform them of their past.
1942 and 1943, Irena successfully smuggled out over 400 children,
but on October 20, 1942 she was arrested for her activities
and imprisoned by the Gestapo. She was the only one who knew
the names and addresses of the families sheltering the Jewish
children and she endured torture to conceal this information.
Under unrelenting torment, Irena remained strong…and silent.
Though the Nazis could break her body (they broke both her feet
and legs) they could not break her spirit. Irena refused to
betray any of her associates or the children in hiding. She
spent three months in the Pawiak prison and was sentenced to
she awaited execution, her Zegota associates were
able to bribe one of the German guards to halt the execution.
This German soldier took Irena to an “additional interrogation”
and once outside he shouted in Polish “Run!”…and she did. The
next day she saw her name on the list of the executed Poles.
though she faced death because of her work in rescuing Jewish
children, Irena did not give up this cause after her narrow
escape. Instead, she returned to the Warsaw Ghetto under a false
identity and continued the work of rescuing Jewish children
until the end of the war.
the war ended, Irena dug up the jars and used the notes in them
to track down the 2,500 children she placed with adoptive families
in hopes of reuniting them with relatives scattered across Europe
. However, she found that most of the children had lost their
families to Nazi concentration camps.
children only knew Irena by her code name Jolanta, but many
never forgot her. Years later she received an award for her
humanitarian service during the war and her pictured appeared
in the newspaper. When the paper hit the newsstands, she received
telephone calls from many of the children, now grown, who recognized
her as the woman who took them out of the Ghetto.
having a heart for people, later in life Irena continued her
work with Social Welfare helping others by working to create
houses for elderly people, orphanages, and emergency service
Sendler never considered herself a hero and never claimed any
credit for her work on behalf of the Jewish people during World
War II. In fact, her one regret was that she wasn’t able to
do more and she felt that this regret would follow her for the
rest of her life.
my knowledge, Irena is living today in Warsaw , Poland , as
is 94 years old.