When Adolf Hitler and his Nazis built the Warsaw Ghetto in 1940 and herded 500,000 Polish Jews behind its walls to await liquidation, many Polish gentiles turned their backs or applauded. Not Irena Sendler.
During the Holocaust, Irena Sendler worked for Zegota, a unit within the Polish underground established specifically to help Jews in hiding. As a health worker, she had access to the Warsaw Ghetto, and between 1942 and 1943 she led hundreds of Jewish children out of the Ghetto to safe hiding places.
Raised in Otwock, Irena Sendler was greatly influenced by her father who was one of the first Polish Socialists. As a doctor, his patients were mostly poor Jews.
In 1939, Germany took Warsaw. At the time, Irena was employed by the Social Welfare Department of the city of Warsaw which involved working the canteens. Previously, the canteens provided meals, financial aid, and other services for orphans, the elderly, and the poor. Now, through Irena, the canteens also served Jews who were in great need. She gave clothing, medicine, and money to the Jews.
Irena Sendler, who wore a "star" armband as a sign of her solidarity to Jews, began smuggling children out in an ambulance. 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. Irena Sendler successfully smuggled almost 2,500 Jewish children to safety and gave them temporary new identities.
Some children, after being sedated, were carried out in potato sacks, others were placed in coffins, some entered a church in the Ghetto which had two entrances. One entrance opened into the Ghetto, the other opened into the "Aryan" side of Warsaw. They entered the church as Jews and exited as Christians. "`Can you guarantee they will live?' " Sendler later recalled the distraught parents asking. But she could only guarantee they would die if they stayed. "In my dreams," she said, "I still hear the cries when they left their parents."
Irena Sendler accomplished her incredible deeds with the active assistance of the church. "I sent most of the children to religious establishments," she recalled. "I knew I could count on the Sisters." Sendler also had a remarkable record of cooperation when placing the youngsters: "No one ever refused to take a child from me," she said.
But the Germans became aware of Irena's activities, and on October 20, 1943 she was arrested and imprisoned by the Gestapo. Irena Sandler ended up in Pawiak Prison when the owner of one of her meeting places divulged her name while being tortured.
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 torture, refusing to betray either her associates or any of the Jewish children in hiding. Sentenced to death, Irena was saved at the last minute when Zegota members bribed one of the Germans to halt the execution. She escaped from prison but for the rest of the war she was pursued by the Gestapo.
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."
This lovely, courageous woman was one of the most dedicated and active workers in aiding Jews during the Nazi occupation. Now in her late 80s she lives in Warsaw. Her courage enabled not only the survival of hundreds of Jewish children but also of the generations of their descendants.
The Jewish Foundation for the Righteous
The Samaritans - Heroes of the Holocaust
"Sheltering the Jews: Stories of Holocaust Rescuers"
Fortress Press, 1996