Irena Sendler was a Polish social worker, nurse, and director of the children’s department for the Council for Aid to Jews, Zegota (an underground resistance group during WWII). She has been recognized by Yad Vashem as a Righteous Among the Nations, and awarded the Jan Karski for Valor and Courage.
To say the least, Irena Sendler is an inspiring humanitarian with a fascinating life story; her incredible courage and bravery saving the lives of many Jewish people throughout WWII. In this piece, we will be exploring the life of this influential figure, and her part to play during the Holocaust.
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Born in Warsaw on the 15th of February 1910, Irena Sendler (or Irena Kryzyzanowski at the time) was the daughter of Janina and Dr Stanislaw Kryzyzanowski. Although born in Warsaw, Irena grew up in a town near the city called Otwock, and was an only child.
Her father (Dr Stanislaw Kryzyzanowski) died from typhus, which he contracted whilst treating patients, when Irena was only seven years old. Stanislaw, although dying when Irena was very young, had a profound impact on the life values she carried throughout her life, claiming that through her father “I was taught that if you see a person drowning, you must jump into the water to save them, whether you can swim or not.”
After Stanislaw’s death, many leaders in the Jewish community helped to fund Irena’s education, which lead her to study at Warsaw University in Polish Literature.
During her time at university, Irena disagreed with the ghetto bench system that had already been established in some of the universities prior to the war. In reaction to this, she vandalised her grade card and was consequently put on a three year-long suspension from the university.
This was not the last of Irena’s protests against Jewish discrimination, but rather the beginning to her humanitarian career, fighting for the lives of Jewish people throughout the Holocaust.
How Did Irena Sendler Help During the War?
Even in the very beginnings of WWII, as the Germans invaded Irena’s birthplace of Warsaw, she started to help the city’s Jews, providing them with food and water. However, once the ghetto was built within the city this cut off Irena’s access to those who needed her aid. She then started to plan out another way in which to help.
Once the Warsaw Ghetto was established in the year 1940, Irena then started to smuggle out orphaned children. She used her status as a social worker, in addition to documentation from an employee at the Contagious Disease (who also became a part of the underground group Zegota) to gain access into the Warsaw Ghetto, and access to the orphaned children who lived in it.
After the underground Polish resistance group for the Provisional Committee for Aid to Jews (Zegota) was established in 1942. Irena was soon appointed as head of its children’s division. During her position with Zegota, Irena and her team helped to rescue around 2,500 Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto. There were four main ways in which Irena’s team would smuggle out children from the ghetto, these being as follows:
- Smuggled through an old courthouse next to the ghetto.
- Escape through underground passages such as the sewer.
- Hide in a luggage bag and then carried out by a trolley.
- Via ambulance; hidden under stretchers, faking illness or genuinely being ill.
Those rescued were sent to numerous different orphanages and religious institutions that took in vulnerable children. Irena used her contacts with these places to smuggle the children in under false names. Some of the main places these children were smuggled into included the Rodzina Marii Orphanage, and religious institutions in and around Chotomow, Turkowice and Lublin.
Why Was Irena Sendler Imprisoned?
On the 20th of October 1943, Irena was arrested, and sent to Piawiak prison. During her time in imprisonment she was tortured for information on the other members of Zegota, and Irena fed the interrogators false information. Irena was then sentenced to death, however did not fulfil this sentence as her fellow Zegota members bribed workers in the prison to let her escape.
The day after Irena’s escape, Nazi officials interestingly announced that she had been shot, with posters with this false news dotted all around Warsaw. Irena was in hiding throughout the rest of the war, and once over, started to try and connect the children she had saved with their parents. Unfortunately, nearly all of these parents had been killed during the holocaust.
When the war was over, Irena carried on her career as a social worker. She received numerous awards for her outstanding bravery and courage; these included the previously mentioned Yad Vashem’s Righteous Among the Nations, and Jan Karski’s Valor and Courage. In addition to these, Irena was also awarded Poland’s Order of the White Eagle, and has been a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Irena then spent the latter part of her life cared for in Warsaw by a woman called Elzbieta Ficowska. Eizbieta was one of the children (six months old at the time) Irena had smuggled out of city’s ghetto.
Irena has remarked on her actions during the war, stating that “We who were rescuing children re not some kind of heroes. That term irritates me greatly. The opposite is true – I continue to have qualms of conscience that I did so little. I could have done more. This regret will follow me to my death.”