Irena Sendlerowa(AKA: Sendler)’s father died from typhus while treating Jewish people that other physicians refused to treat. Irena got in trouble at school for defending Jewish people from bullies. At the University, she was suspended and nearly thrown out of the university for sitting with her Jewish friends.
After the Germans invaded Poland, Irena assisted Jewish families through her social work department by giving out medicine, money, clothing and giving them new names. When the Germans moved all the Jews in Poland to the Warsaw Ghetto, she began aiding Jewish children by creating over three thousand false documents. This was very dangerous work. In Poland, public executions of people who helped the Jews were common throughout the War. During the Nazi occupation as many as 50,000 Polish gentiles( primarily Catholics like Irena) were executed by the Nazis for saving over 400,000 Jews. Irena also headed the children’s division of the Żegota resistance( The Council to Aid Jews). As an employee of the Social Welfare Department, she inspected the Warsaw Ghetto for typhus and made false reports in order to stall German attempts to move the Jews to Germany for extermination. She smuggled Jewish children out of the Ghetto in packages, suitcases, ambulances, gunnysacks, body bags and trolleys.
In my dreams,” she said, “I still hear the cries when they left their parents.” The children were placed with Polish families and in Catholic orphanages. She removed at least 2,500 Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto.
In 1943, she was arrested by the Gestapo who tortured her for weeks. She refused to divulge any information and was sentenced to death. Fortunately, Żegota saved her by bribing the German guards who left her for dead in the woods, unconscious and with broken arms and legs. She went into hiding and placed the names of all the children in a jar so they could be reunited with their parents after the war. When the Jews learned they were being exterminated, there was an uprising. While continuing to suffer from her physical injuries, she hid three Jewish adults, as well as two children. After the war, she dug up the jar with the children’s names in it and attempted to return the thousands children to their parents but she discovered that in almost all cases the parents had been killed at the Treblinka extermination camp. Like Oscar Schindler, she took no credit for her actions. “I could have done more,” she said. “This regret will follow me to my death.”
After the war, Poland became a communist country. Even though she was crippled as a result of her Nazi torturers, she was persecuted by the communists for her relations with the Polish government in exile and with the Home Army. Irena also became a member of Solidarity.
In 1965, she was 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.
Her heroism went largely unnoticed outside the Jewish community for many years. Then the story was uncovered by four young students from Kansas (Megan Stewart, Liz Cambers, Sabrina Coons and Jessica Shelton). They spent thousands of hours including a trip to Poland to discover the history. They wrote a play called Life in a Jar about her heroism and won the 2000 Kansas State National History Day competition.
In 2003, she was awarded Poland’s highest distinction, the Order of White Eagle and she was announced as the 2003 winner of the Jan Karski award for Valor and Courage. She has officially been designated a national hero in Poland and schools are named in her honor. Annual Irena Sendler days are celebrated throughout Europe and even in the United States. Her picture is on Polish coins. In 2007, Irena was nominated for the Nobel Peace prize. However, Al Gore won instead. In 2008, Irena died at the age of 98. Last year, Irena Sendler: In the Name of Their Mothers premiered in the United States during the week of Mother’s Day on PBS.
Life in a Jar
Warsaw Ghetto: Grossaktion Warsaw, the Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler, Simcha Liberman by Books LLC (Sep 15, 2010)
Irena Sendler: Mother of the Children of the Holocaust. by Anna Mieszkowska Publisher: Praeger; Tra edition (November 18, 2010)
Irena Sendler and the Children of the Warsaw Ghetto by Susan Goldman Rubin and Bill Farnsworth (Apr 1, 2011)
Irena Sendler Organization
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