This is the story of an incredible woman and her amazing gift to mankind. Irena Sendler. An unfamiliar name to most people, but this remarkable woman defied the Nazis and saved 2,500 Jewish children by smuggling them out of the Warsaw Ghetto.
She was born on Februray 15th, 1910, Irena was greatly influenced by her father who was one of the first Polish Socialists. As a doctor, his patients were mostly poor Jews. Irena decided to follow his footsteps and pursue medicine, she dedicated her life to help people in need, no matter the cost.
In October 1942, when in German-occupied Poland the Council for Aid to Jews – codename “Zegota” – was organized by the Polish Underground, Sendler was one of its first recruits. Thirty-two years old, she was at the time a Senior Administrator in the Warsaw Welfare Department. She had already been very involved in helping Jews before the Germans set up the Jewish Ghetto. She became the director of the Childrens Section of Zegota using the codename: Jolanta.
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 Irena 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.
Irena Sendler, who wore a star armband as a sign of her solidarity to Jews, began smuggling out the children in suitcases, ambulances, coffins, sewer pipes, rucksacks and, on one occasion, even a tool box.. 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.
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.
Unfortunately, underground activists managed to bribe officials to release her. 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, 2003.
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.