by Ted Rajchel
Irena Stanislawa Sendler was a Polish humanitarian, social worker, and nurse who served in the Polish underground resistance during World War II in German occupied Warsaw. From October, 1943 she was head of the children’s section of Zegota, the Polish council to aid Jewish people. Her nick name was ‘Jolanta.’
Who Was this Great Lady?
Irena Sendler was a Polish woman, who along with her trusted network, is credited to have saved the lives of 2,500 Jewish children during the Holocaust. She was working as a nurse and a social worker; she was very active in the Polish underground—The Polish resistance movement during World War II—in German occupied Warsaw.
As a young woman she was deeply influenced by her father who was a doctor and also one of the first Polish socialists. She grew up watching her father tend to poor patients and this instilled in her a desire to help the needy and the under privileged in whatever ways she could.
When the Germans invaded Warsaw in 1939 and started inflicting unspeakable tortures on the Jewish population, she made it her priority to help out Jewish people by offering them food and shelter. She collaborated with some of her trusted allies and used her position to obtain thousands of false documents to help the Jewish families.
As a nurse and a social worker, Irena was in charge of the children’s division of Zegota, a Polish underground group to assist Jewish people. In this position, she worked tirelessly with her helpers to smuggle around 2,500 children out of the Warsaw Ghetto and provided them safe shelter outside the ghetto.
Irena was born as Irena Krzyzanowska on the 15th of February, 1910 in Otwock, near Warsaw, to Stanislaw Krzyzanowski and his wife Janina. She was her parents’ the only child. Her father was a physician and also one of the first Polish socialists. She was greatly influenced by his selfless service to his patients, mostly poor and Jewish. He did not charge them for his services. Her father contracted typhus while treating Jewish patients the other doctors refused to treat and died in February, 1917.
From 1927 Sendler studied law for two years and then Polish literature at the University of Warsaw, interrupting her studied for several years from 1932 to 1937. She became associated with social and educational units of the Free Polish University, where she met and was influenced by activists.
One was Wszechnica Sendler, who belonged to a group of social workers led by Professor Helena Radlinska; a dozen or more women from that circle would later engage in rescuing Jewish people from her social work on site interviews.
Sendler recalled many cases of extreme poverty that she encountered among the Jewish population of Warsaw. She married Mieczyslaw Sendler in 1931. He was mobilized for war, captured as a soldier in September, 1939 and remained in a German prisoner of war camp until 1945; they divorced in 1947. She then married Stefan Zgrzembski, a Jewish friend and wartime companion, with whom he had three children. In 1957 he left the family; he died in 1961 and Irena remarried her first husband, Mieczyslaw Sendler. Ten years later they divorced again.
During the late 1930s Irena Sendler moved to Warsaw and started working for municipal social welfare departments. The Germans invaded Poland in 1939 and the Nazis started brutalizing the citizens, especially the Jewish population.
She was working as a Senior Administrator in the Warsaw social welfare department at that time. The department operated canteens all over the city and provided meals and other necessities to the orphans, elderly and the poor.
Irena Sendler realized the situation of the Jewsish people under the Nazis and helped them by registering them under fictitious Christian names and reported the Jewish families as being afflicted with highly infectious diseases in order to prevent inspections. She was taking a huge a huge risk by helping the Jewish people, as giving any kind of assistance to them in German—occupied Poland was punishable by death. Yet she courageously continued her services.
To the Jewish population, the Zegota, an underground organization also known as the Council to Aid Jewish People, selected her. To head its Jewish children’s section in 1943 during this time, she was assigned the name of Jolanta, her nickname, in order to protect her real identity.
As an employee of the social welfare department, she had a special permit to enter the Warsaw ghetto, an area into which hundreds of thousands of Jewish people were herded and imprisoned.
Inside the ghetto, the Jewish people lived in highly deplorable conditions and were most likely to be killed b the Nazis in the near future. Sendler, along with some other like-minded and courageous women, started smuggling out Jewish children from the ghetto. The babies and children were hidden in gunny bags, buried inside loads of goods, or sometimes even placed in coffins to hide them from the Nazis and transported to safer places.
Sendler participated, with dozens of others, in smuggling Jewish children out of the Warsaw ghetto and then providing them with false identity documents and sheltering them with willing Polish families or in orphanages and other care facilities, including Catholic nun convents, saving those children from the Holocaust.
Sendler ensured that the children were provided with false identities and placed them in non-Jewish homes. She also documented the children’s original names and new identities in coded form and hid the records by placing them inside jars and burying them under trees. She was a very courageous young girl. She and her helpers had succeeded in saving around 2.500 children in this manner. However, her activities were discovered by the Gestapo, and she was severely tortured. She refused to divulge any vital information in spite of being brutally tortured and finally sentenced to death.
The German occupiers suspected Sendler’s involvement in the Polish underground and in October, 1943 she was arrested by the Gestapo, but she managed to hide the list of the names and locations of the rescued Jewish children, preventing this information from falling into the hands of the Gestapo. Withstanding torture and imprisonment, she never revealed anything about her work or the locations of the saved children.
She was sentenced to death, but narrowly escaped on the day of her scheduled execution after Zegota bribed German officials to obtain her release. She then acquired a false identity and continued her work with the Zegota, working as a nurse until the Germans left Warsaw.
During her later years, she worked for the ministries of education and health, and helped to organize a number of orphanages and children, family, and elderly care centers. She is best remembered for the pivotal role she played in saving the lives of approximately 2,500 Jewish children during the Holocaust in which most of the parents ultimately perished. She smuggled them out of the Warsaw Ghetto and helped in finding them homes with non-Jewish families, an act for which she later received wide spread recognition.
Irena Sendler lived a long life, and spent her last years in Warsaw. She died on the 12th of May 2008 at the age of 98 and is buried in Warsaw’s Powazki Cemetery.
Recognition and Awards
In 1965 Sendler was recognized by Yad Vashem as one of the Polish Righteous Among the Nations. In 1983 she was present when a tree was planted in her honor at the Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations.
In 1991 Sendler was made an Honorary Citizen of Israel. In June, 1996 she was awarded the Commander’s Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta. She received a higher version of this award, the Commander’s Cross with Star on the 7th of November, 2001. She was honored with the Order of the White Eagle, Poland’s highest civilian decoration, in 2003. Sendler was posthumously granted two awards in 2009: The Humanitarian of the Year Award from the Sister Rose Thering Endowment, and the Audrey Hepburn Humanitarian Award.
In 2003 Pope John Paul II sent Sendler a personal letter praising her wartime efforts. She was awarded The Polish-American Award, the Jan Karski Award “For courage and heart,” given by The American Center of Polish Culture in Washington, DC.
In 2006 the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Poland, and the Life in a Jar Foundation established the Irena Sendler Award “for repairing the world.” The Life in a Jar Foundation dedicated to promoting the attitude and message of Irena Sendler. On the 14th of March in 2007, Sendler was honored by the Senate of Poland and a year later, on the 30th of July, by the United States Congress. On the 11th of April in 2007 she received the Order of the Smile. At that she was the oldest recipient of the award.
In 2007 she became an Honorary Citizen of the Cities of Warsaw and Tarczyn. In 2013 the walkway in front of the Polin Museum of the history of Polish Jews in Warsaw was named after Sendler. “This noble woman …worked for Zegota and saved hundreds of Jewish children.”
References: (1) Irena Sendler—Wikipedia; (2) Irena Sendler Biography-Facts, Childhood, Family Life, and Achievements; (3) Irena Sendler—Stories of Women, Who Received Jews during the Holocaust .