During the German occupation of Poland, an area of 3.4 square kilometers in Warsaw was turned into a ghetto for over 400,000 Jews. Hundreds of thousands of these people were sent to Nazi prison camps and death camps, while those who stayed suffered from rampant hunger and related diseases. It was at this time that Irena Sendler was working as a social welfare employee and secretly leading the children’s section of an underground organization. During her hygiene inspections of the ghetto, she smuggled thousands of children out to safety, and here is her story.
Irena Sendler was born Irena Krzyżanowska on February 15, 1910, and studied Polish literature at Warsaw University. While there, she joined the Polish Socialist Party and opposed the ghetto-bench system, which resulted in her suspension from the university for three years.
Born in Warsaw, Sendler grew up in a nearby town named Otwock which was home to a vibrant, Jewish community. In February 1917, her physician father Dr. Stanisław Krzyżanowski died after contracting typhus while treating Jewish patients. The local Jewish community offered financial assistance so that Sendler could continue her studies, but her mother declined. While alive, her father greatly influenced Sendler’s attitude towards Jews which led her to join the Polish Socialist Party while studying. Her opposition to the ghetto-bench system marred her grade card at the university, and after a public protest, she was suspended.
After the German invasion of Poland in 1939, Sendler risked death penalty by leading a group who created more than 3,000 false documents for Jewish families. In August 1943, she headed an underground organization’s children section and smuggled 2,500 children out of Warsaw Ghetto.
Sendler soon moved to Warsaw and started working for the municipal Social Welfare Department. While there, she led a group of co-workers who created false documents at great risk since as of October 1941, anyone who aided the Jews was given the death penalty along with their entire family. By 1943, Sendler was known by her pseudonym “Jolanta” and headed the children’s section of Żegota, an underground organization.
As she worked in the Social Welfare Department, she was allowed to visit the Warsaw Ghetto to check for typhus infections. The Germans feared, if left unchecked, it would spread outside of the ghetto. During her inspections, she and her co-workers would smuggle babies and small children in ambulances, trams, packages, suitcases, and by any other means possible. Sendler herself smuggled over 400 children, and the whole network led by her managed to smuggle out approximately 2,500 children.
The Jewish children were given new identities and placed with various Christian families and in orphanages. Sendler wanted to return them to their original families after the war and so kept their identity lists buried in jars. Despite being arrested by the Gestapo in 1943 and severely tortured, she never compromised the information.
To prevent the children from losing their Jewish identities, Sendler kept documents listing their new Christian names along with their original names and their current location. Before the Gestapo ransacked her house, she was able to pass the lists to her friend. After her arrest, she was brutally beaten and her legs and feet were fractured, but she refused to give up her comrades or the children. She was then sentenced to death, but was rescued by Żegota on the way to execution. Though after the war she gave the lists to Żegota to reunite the children with their families, almost all of their parents were either killed or missing.
After the war, Sendler received many honors including being recognized as Polish Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem and a nomination for Nobel Peace Prize. She was also made an honorary citizen of Israel in 1991.
Despite her humanitarian efforts and the end of war, Sendler had to suffer for years as the communist secret police imprisoned and interrogated her from 1948 to 1949 because of her ties with its rival party. During that time, she went into premature labor and lost a child. When she was recognized as a Polish Righteous Among the Nations in 1965, she was not allowed to receive the award until 1983. In November 2003, she received the Order of the White Eagle, Poland’s highest civilian decoration, and in 2007 was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. During her later years, Sendler worked as a teacher and for Ministries of Education and Health. She was active as a social worker helping various orphanages and care centers.