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Updated on August 21, 2013

Who Was Irena Sendler?

Irena Sendler was born in 1910 and died in 2008 at the age of 98. She was Roman Catholic in faith.

Irena was a social worker born to a doctor and his wife. Her father died in 1917 during a typhus outbreak when he treated patient's with typhus other doctors would not. Perhaps this is where she learned her devotion of serving others. Sendler posed as a nurse in order to have access to Jewish infants and children.

Irena Sendler operated in the Polish underground by visiting the mother's of Jewish children, begging them to release the children to her in which many did. These Jewish children were smuggled out of the ghetto's of Warsaw to safety from the Nazi's hands.

She smuggled infants and children via ambulances disguising them as packages, hiding them in suitcases and other creative ways while posing as a nurse. As an employee of the Social Welfare Department, Sendler had a special permit to check the children for symptoms of typhus and sanitation. The Nazi's feared typhus would spread like wildfire through the villages and this is why her checks were allowed. Sendler and her assistants created as many as 3,000 false documents to aid these Jewish children with new identities and placed them in convents, Polish orphanages and other "safe houses".

The names of the children and their parents were hidden in jars so they could be reunited with each other later, but most did not because the parents did not survive the brutality of the Nazi regime.

In 1943, Sendler was arrested by the Gestapo and was severely tortured and sentenced to death. She escaped death due to bribery of German guards but had to live in hiding for the rest of the war. During one torture session alone, she suffered broken legs and feet, but she refused to reveal who her helpers were and where the jars of life were hidden.

Sendler helped around 400 adults escape before she even formed the underground organization which aided in these escapes.

It was decades later, Sendler finally got her first recognition of her efforts. But until that time, Irena Sendler was an unsung world heroine for her heart of courage, recruiting others to assist her in the Zegota underground without glory or limelight for herself while at great risk of losing her life and operating in such detrimental and intimidating circumstances.


In 1965, some 22 years after her rescue of the children via underground, both Poland and Israel recognized her with her awards. In 2003, the Pope sent her a letter thanking her for her service. That same year, she received Poland's highest civilian award.

The Polish President stated she could be "justly" nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, but she never received the Prize but Al Gore won it for global warming recognition instead.

The International Federation of Social Workers expressed their disappointment that Irena Sendler did not win the Nobel Peace Prize, but congratulated Al Gore.

It is difficult for me to fathom why Irena did not win. Perhaps she was not actually even nominated. This is something we will not know for sure until 2057. The nominees, investigations and all the secrets involved in the Nobel Peace Prize selections are kept secret for 50 years.

Irena won other awards as noted in the table below, but please note that she was not recognized until many years after courageous acts of saving more than 2,500 Jews, along with her counterparts she recruited for the Zegota underground.


Polish Righteous Among the Nations
Tree planted in her honor
Commander's Cross
Israeli Institute
Commander's Cross with Star
Order of Polonia Restituta
Letter From Pope
Letter of Praise from Pope John Paul II
Order of the While Eagle
Poland's highest honor for civilians
Jan Karski Award
Courage and Heart , American Center of Polish Culture, Washington DC
Order of the Smile
Oldest Recipient
Honoree by Polish Senate
Sendler was unable to attend due to her health, just one year before her death
Possible Nobel Peace Prize Nominee
Audrey Hepburn
Audrey Hepburn Humanitarian Award
With little world recognition, and an humble heart, Sendler states: "Every child saved with my help is the justification of my existence on this earth, and not a title to glory."

Life In a Jar

In 1999, a high school in the town of Uniontown, Kansas produced a play called "Life in a Jar" based upon Sendler's life and actions during World War II and the Nazi occupied Poland where Sendler rescued the Jewish children from certain death in the Warsaw ghetto.

With productions throughout the United States, Canada and Poland, the school is recognized for bringing her story to all of us. The students also developed a website: The Irena Sendler Project in which thousands and thousands of views have been counted and because of a teacher's objective and three willing students who chose to dream big, Sendler's legacy lives on in our hearts forever.


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    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 4 years ago from sunny Florida

      So many unsung heroes and heroines....thank you for sharing this one with us. What an example of selfless giving...a testimony to the strength and goodness that made a huge difference for others.

      Angels are on the way ps

    • BuffaloGal1960 profile image

      T. Clifton 4 years ago from Buffalo, Missouri

      Thanks Nell Rose. I have seen pictures of her, both younger and at age 98 in the nursing home. I have never watched the documentary or the film as I rarely watch anything at all. But it's on my bucket list. I am fascinated with her and she caught my eye. I love her Irena Sendler. :) Thanks for telling me about it. It will make me get it sooner maybe!

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 4 years ago from England

      This was a fascinating read buffalogal, and really strange because it was only last week that I sat and watched the film! Anne Paquin, Of True Blood fame, took the main role, and she was really amazing as Irena Sendler, I would watch the whole film again as it was probably one of the best films I have seen in years. if you can find it, you really should watch it, they did an amazing job of bringing her to life, and you also get to see the real life Irena at the end of the film too, voted up!

    • BuffaloGal1960 profile image

      T. Clifton 4 years ago from Buffalo, Missouri

      Thank you to both of you.

    • MG Singh profile image

      MG Singh 4 years ago from Singapore

      A wonderful post that added to my knowledge

    • Jackie Lynnley profile image

      Jackie Lynnley 4 years ago from The Beautiful South

      I know without doubt she will be awarded above Al Gore where it really counts; in this afterlife. She has gone above and beyond any duty given to us regarding Jews from the bible that God has given us. Even some Christians do not realize the importance of helping those who in a roundabout way gave us a road to eternal salvation.

      Great write, I had heard of her just lately and how could anyone not be amazed at her determination and goal to save a people at the cost it was to her?