“Every child saved with my help is the justification of my existence on this Earth, and not a title to glory.”
Irena Sendler was a 29-year-old social worker in Warsaw, Poland when the second World War broke out and the Nazis invaded. Before the invasion, she oversaw the city “canteens”, which provided assistance to people in need, and after the Nazi invasion these canteens also provided medicine, food and clothing to the persecuted Jewish population.
When the Nazis locked Warsaw’s 400,000 Jewish residents into the ghetto area, Sendler entered regularly to help the residents. She joined Żegota, the Council to Aid Jews, whom set out to save as many Jewish children as possible from death in the ghetto or deportation to concentration camps. The rescue operations at first only concentrated on Jewish orphans but then fanned out to all Jewish children as the situation in the ghetto became worse. The children were smuggled out in caskets, potato sacks, ambulances or snuck out through underground tunnels.
Sendler, whose underground name was Jolanta, exploited her contacts with orphanages and institutes for abandoned children, to send Jewish children there. Sendler kept detailed lists of the children she helped buried in a jar. Her plan was to reunite the rescued children and their parents after the war. However, most of the parents did not survive. On October 20, 1943, the Nazis arrested Sendler and sent her to Pawiak Prison. There they tortured her, trying to get her to reveal the names of her associates. She refused and was sentenced to death. However, Żegota members bribed the prison guards, and Sendler was released in February 1944. Her close encounter with death did not deter her from continuing her activity. After her release in February 1944, even though she knew that the authorities were keeping an eye on her, Sendler continued her underground activities. Because of this danger she had to go into hiding.
Sendler continued her work until the war ended, by which time she and her colleagues had rescued some 2,500 children. It has been estimated that Sendler personally saved about 400.
In 1965, Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial organization, named Irena Sendler as Righteous Among the Nations for her work saving Jewish children. In 2003, Poland honored her with its Order of the White Eagle. In 2008, Sendler was nominated for (but did not win) a Nobel Peace Prize.
Sendler died on May 12, 2008, in Warsaw, Poland, at the age of 98.
By Lina Piskernik, WAVE Step Up! Campaign Assistant
“Irena Sendler.” Biography.com, A&E Networks Television, 21 Mar. 2016, www.biography.com/people/irena-sendler-031616.
“‘Women of Valor.’” Irena Sendler – Stories of Women Who Rescued Jews During the Holocaust – Righteous Among the Nations – Yad Vashem, www.yadvashem.org/yv/en/exhibitions/righteous-women/sendler.asp.