Irena Sendler

irenasendlerIrena Sendler
Friend of the Jews
“I could have done more. This regret will follow me to my death.”
–Irena Sendler

 

 

During World War II, Hitler’s Nazi regime built the Warsaw Ghetto, a 16 block area in the city of Warsaw , Poland , and proceeded to herd over 500,000 Polish Jews behind its wall to await annihilation. While many non-Jewish Poles turned their backs, such was not the case with Irena Sendler. Though her name is not recognized by most, Irena Sendler in an unsung heroine who defied the Nazis and saved 2,500 Jewish children from certain death by smuggling them out of the Warsaw Ghetto.

Born in 1910 as Irena Krzyzanowski, she grew up in Otwock, a town about 15 miles southeast of Warsaw . Irena was greatly influenced by her father, Stanislaw, who was one of the first Polish Socialists. His ideas were a great influence on her as she studied Polish literature and was part of the leftist Union of Democratic Youth. Irena’s heart for the Jewish people of her nation may have been acquired by watching her father, a medical doctor, take care his patients, many of which were of poor Jews.

As an adult, Irena worked as senior administrator in the Warsaw Social Welfare Department that ran the canteens of the city when Germany invaded the country in 1939. Under her direction, these canteens not only provided food, financial aid, and other services for orphans, elderly, and poor but also clothing, medicine, and money for Jewish families. To avoid inspections, the Jews were registered under fictitious names and were reported as patients suffering from highly contagious diseases.

When the Warsaw Ghetto was built in 1940 to contain the nation’s Jewish population, Irena was appalled. She was so horrified by the conditions of the Ghetto that she joined the Council for Aid to Jews, Zegota , organized by the Polish underground resistance movement, and directed the efforts to rescue Jewish children. At that time nearly 5,000 people were dying a month from starvation and diseases.

In order to gain access to the Warsaw Ghetto, Irena used her position in the Welfare Department to obtain a pass from the Warsaw Epidemic Control Department. She visited it daily with the aim of re-establishing contacts, bringing food, medicines, and clothes. While there, she wore a star armband as a sign of her solidarity to Jews.

One of her most difficult tasks in rescuing the children was getting the Jewish parents to agree to let her smuggle their little ones out of the Ghetto. While she could not give them the guarantee that their children would survive the escape, she could guarantee that they would certainly die if they stayed. The cries of both parents and children being separated continued to haunt Irena her entire life.

In order to succeed in her efforts, Irena needed help from the outside. She recruited at least one person from each of the ten centers of the Social Welfare Department. With their help, Irena issued hundreds of false documents with forged signatures and successfully smuggled approximately 2,500 Jewish children to safety and gave them new identities.

Some children were taken out of the Ghetto in body bags, while some were buried inside loads of goods. Some were smuggled out in garbage cans, potato sacks, and coffins. They were also smuggled out in ambulances as victims of typhus. One baby was even smuggled out in a toolbox carried by a mechanic. A church in the Ghetto was also used as a means of escape. The church had two entrances: one that opened into the Ghetto and one that opened into the Aryan side of Warsaw . The children entered the church as Jews and exited as Christians.

While it was difficult to escape the Ghetto, it was even harder to survive as a Jew on the Aryan side. The rescue of a child required the help of at least 10 people, most of which were recruited from the local church. Children were first taken to units called Pogotowi Opiekuncze, or caring units and were later given false identities and taken to houses, orphanages, and convents.

Only Irena knew the children’s true identities and kept record of them, and their new identities, in coded form. She placed this information in glass jars and buried the jars beneath an apple tree in a neighbor’s back yard, across the street from German barracks. She hoped to one day dig up the jars, locate the children and inform them of their past.

Between 1942 and 1943, Irena successfully smuggled out over 400 children, but on October 20, 1942 she was arrested for her activities and imprisoned by the Gestapo. She was the only one who knew the names and addresses of the families sheltering the Jewish children and she endured torture to conceal this information. Under unrelenting torment, Irena remained strong…and silent. Though the Nazis could break her body (they broke both her feet and legs) they could not break her spirit. Irena refused to betray any of her associates or the children in hiding. She spent three months in the Pawiak prison and was sentenced to death.

While she awaited execution, her Zegota associates were able to bribe one of the German guards to halt the execution. This German soldier took Irena to an “additional interrogation” and once outside he shouted in Polish “Run!”…and she did. The next day she saw her name on the list of the executed Poles.

Even though she faced death because of her work in rescuing Jewish children, Irena did not give up this cause after her narrow escape. Instead, she returned to the Warsaw Ghetto under a false identity and continued the work of rescuing Jewish children until the end of the war.

When the war ended, Irena dug up the jars and used the notes in them to track down the 2,500 children she placed with adoptive families in hopes of reuniting them with relatives scattered across Europe . However, she found that most of the children had lost their families to Nazi concentration camps.

The children only knew Irena by her code name Jolanta, but many never forgot her. Years later she received an award for her humanitarian service during the war and her pictured appeared in the newspaper. When the paper hit the newsstands, she received telephone calls from many of the children, now grown, who recognized her as the woman who took them out of the Ghetto.

Still having a heart for people, later in life Irena continued her work with Social Welfare helping others by working to create houses for elderly people, orphanages, and emergency service for children.

Irena Sendler never considered herself a hero and never claimed any credit for her work on behalf of the Jewish people during World War II. In fact, her one regret was that she wasn’t able to do more and she felt that this regret would follow her for the rest of her life.

Passed away at the age of 98 in Warsaw, Poland. (1910 – 2008)

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