Irena Sendler: the greatest female hero of Poland during World War II
During World War II, she got permission to work in the Warsaw ghetto as a social worker. However, she had an ulterior motive: to save Jewish infants from the bloodthirsty Nazis. This is the story of Irena Sendler, who accomplished even more than ‘just’ saving the lives of 2,500 Jewish children.
Early years and childhood
Born as Irena Krżyanowska in Warsaw on the 15th of February 1910, Irena Sendler was the daughter of Dr. Stanislaw Krżyanowska and his wife Janina. She was only 7 years old when her father died in 1917 of typhus contracted from patients he treated, many of which were Jewish (please note that his colleagues refused to treat them in fear of contracting the disease). After he passed away, as a token of gratitude, Jewish community leaders offered Irena’s mother financial aid for her education, thus making it possible for the then young girl to study Polish literature at the Warsaw University. Out of protest against the so-called ghetto-bench system (system of segregation meant to separate Jewish students from the rest of their classmates by forcing them to sit on specifically assigned benches on the left of the classrooms) that existed at some prewar Polish universities, she defaced her grade card, resulting in her getting suspended from the university for three years.
The Nazi-German invasion
In 1939, Nazi-Germany invaded Poland that proved to be no match for its vast and highly efficient enemy; the country was conquered and occupied in a matter of weeks. Irena, working at the time as a senior administrator for the Warsaw Social Welfare Department that ran the canteens of the city after the Nazi-German invasion, started to use her authority to help out Jews by providing them with food as well as financial aid, clothing, medicine and other services. Inspections were avoided by registering the Jews under fictitious names and reporting them as patients who suffered from highly contagious diseases. However, when the Warsaw ghetto was erected and became home to 450,000 Jews who were forced to move and live there in 1940, she was no longer able to help out the Jewish community the way she had been doing so far.
Fully aware that she had to adjust her strategies if she were to continue her noble work, Irena made use of her authority at the Welfare Department once again in order to obtain an access pass to the ghetto from the Warsaw Epidemic Control Department. She then started to visit the ghetto on a daily basis and continued where she had left off at first. Over 3,000 false documents were forged by her and her helpers in order to help the Jewish people. Horrified by the conditions they had to live in, she ended up joining the Council for Aid to Jews (also known under the code name Zegota, a Polish underground movement established to assist the Jewish community) in 1942 as one of its first members. She was put in charge of the Children’s Division of Zegota and obtained the code name ‘Jolanta’.
Saving Jewish children
The fact that about 5,000 people were dying each month in the ghetto led Irena to the conclusion that the most that could be done was to attempt to save the children living there. Together with a team of twenty-five, she launched a huge and extremely dangerous operation to save them. The tasks were divided in a simple manner: ten members – Irena herself being one of them – were to smuggle the children out, another ten had to find families willing to take care of those saved and the remaining five were to obtain false documents.
Five ways were used predominantly to smuggle children out of the ghetto:
1. By using an ambulance, in which a child could be hidden under the stretcher;
2. By escaping through an old courthouse and a church that stood on the edge of the ghetto. The latter was particularly an option if children were old enough that they could be taught some basic Catholic prayers;
3. By making use of sewer pipes and other secret underground passages;
4. By means of a trolley, which was capable of smuggling out children that were hiding in sacks, suitcases, trunks et cetera;
5. In the event a child was or was able to pretend that it was very sick, an ambulance could legally be used to take it out of the ghetto.
On a few occasions, Irena and her helpers made use of a dog that was taught to bark while they were smuggling children as to prevent the Nazis from hearing their cries.
The hardest part
Though as a reader you may assume that smuggling the children out was the hardest part, it was not – at least not to Irena and the others who had to convince the parents of the children that they had a choice to make. Either they would give their children at least a chance to survive by entrusting them to the care of complete strangers or they would not, hence more or less sealing their death sentences given the amount of disease-related fatalities in the ghetto and the Nazi-led deportations of Jews to death camp Treblinka. To Irena, who always wore a star on her arm when she was in the ghetto out of solidarity with the Jews, it was unbearable to have parents refuse to give up their children, only to hear later on that they all had been deported.
Yet, Irene’s efforts did not remain without success. On the contrary, she and her helpers succeeded in saving the lives of 2,500 Jewish children.
The names in jars
Once Irena and her helpers had successfully smuggled a child out of the ghetto, it was given a false name and identity. They were then taken to the families who had agreed to take them in. These families had to promise that after the war, they would return the children to any surviving family members, yet sadly they didn’t always live up to that. Fortunately, Irena kept track carefully of the real names of the children she saved by writing them down in code form on thin tissue paper and storing them in jars which she buried in a garden, thus preparing herself for the post-war phase of the mission she had assigned to herself.
Arrest, torture and death sentence
The fact that Irena’s work was definitely not without risk became clear in 1943, when the Gestapo discovered what she was doing. She was arrested, brought over to the notorious Pawiak prison and subjected to torture in order to obtain information from her. However, even breaking both her legs, both her feet and preventing her from ever walking again without crutches did not cause the strong-spirited woman to give in. She didn’t reveal anything and fed her interrogators false information that she and her helpers had made up in advance in case something went wrong. Nevertheless, she ended up sentenced to death. Afraid however that she may have given real intelligence, Zegota launched an operation to rescue her. The organization succeeded in bribing prison personnel to help her escape and check her name off the list of those who had already been executed. On the day that followed, Irena witnessed how the Nazis loudly proclaimed that she had been executed, displaying the news on posters which she read herself.
Final years and aftermath of the war
Fully aware that she would have to exercise a lot of caution if she wanted to stay alive, Irena spent the final years of World War II in hiding and with a new identity, just like the children she had managed to save, though she did try to continue her rescue efforts the best she could. She patiently waited, and when the war had finally come to an end, she started to dig up the bottles with the names, thus commencing the last part of her mission: to reunite the children she had saved with any of their surviving family members. Unfortunately, almost all of the parents turned out to have died at the Treblinka death camp, yet it didn’t discourage Irena from attempting to track down the ones she saved and reconnect them with their families.
From torture by Nazis to torture by Communists
By that time, Poland was transformed into a Communist dictatorship that didn’t care a whole lot more for Jewish lives than the Nazis did (an important, historical fact you hardly ever hear about!). As a result, Irena was considered a subversive due to her work for Zegota and even got imprisoned once again between 1948 and 1949, this time to be tortured and interrogated by the Communist secret police because of her ties to the Home Army (Poland’s principal resistance organization which had been loyal to Poland’s government in exile during the war). The torture she underwent at the Communists’ hands caused her to give birth prematurely to her son Andrzej who did not survive. She was eventually released, but would receive neither credit nor recognition for her incredible efforts during the war for a very long time except from those she had helped and saved. Many of them stayed in touch with her over the years and even considered her to be a mother figure.
In 1965, Irena was awarded the title of Righteous Among the Nations by the Israeli Yad Vashem organization, but she was prevented from travelling to Israel to receive the award by Poland’s Communist government until 1983. Eight years later, she was made an honorary citizen of Israel and in 1996 she was awarded the Commander’s Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta (an order of which she received a higher version in 2001). In 2003, both the Jan Karski Freedom Award for Valor and Compassion and the Order of the White Eagle followed.
There were some more honors that were awarded to the Polish heroine – including being nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006, 2007 and 2008 – but the recognition that arguably touched her the most however came from a group of American students in Kansas, who visited her in person in 2001 and wrote the successful play ‘Life in a Jar’, based on her heroic and honorable work during World War II.
Aged 98, Irena Sendler passed away in 2008. Being highly interested in World War II and having built a good bit of knowledge about this period in history thanks to lots of self-conducted research, I was shocked to learn that I never heard her story even once before. It makes me aware of the fact that there is far more to learn and wonder exactly how many heroes and heroines were or still are out there, whose tales were never properly recorded, either due to governmental influences or blunt indifference. In my opinion, true stories like Irena’s ought to be part of mankind’s knowledge that is passed on from generation to generation both as a valuable life lesson and as an example of what it means to be a good person. And finally, I fear that Irena’s following words apply more than ever since World War II:
“After the Second World War it seemed that humanity understood something, and that nothing like that would happen again. Humanity has understood nothing. Religious, tribal and national wars continue. The world continues to be in a sea of blood. The world can be better, if there's love, tolerance, and humility.”
I don’t think it would hurt if mankind as a whole would heed these wise words of this great woman. Do I think that will happen? Given the fact that Irena never ended up actually winning a Nobel Peace price - apparently things like Al Gore's slideshow on global warming was more important and contributed to more peace in this world - I doubt it.
© 2015 Victor Brenntice