Sendler. An unfamiliar name to most
people, but this remarkable woman defied the Nazis and saved 2,500 Jewish
children by smuggling them out of the Warsaw Ghetto. As a health worker,
she sneaked the children out between 1942 and 1943 to safe hiding
places and found non-Jewish families to adopt them.
the old woman, gentle and courageous, is living a
modest existence in her Warsaw apartment - an unsung heroine.
achievement went largely unnoticed for many years. Then the story was
uncovered by four young students at Uniontown High School, in Kansas, who
were the winners of the 2000 Kansas state National History Day
competition by writing a play Life in a Jar about the heroic
actions of Irena Sendler. The girls - Elizabeth Cambers, Megan Stewart,
Sabrina Coons and Janice Underwood - have since gained international
recognition, along with their teacher, Norman Conard. The presentation,
seen in many venues in the United States and popularized by National
Public Radio, C-SPAN and CBS, has brought Irena Sendler's story to a wider
students continue their prize-winning dramatic presentation Life in a
Jar. They have established an e-mail address firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sendler was born in 1910 in Otwock, a town some 15 miles southeast of
Warsaw. She was greatly influenced by her father who was one of the first
Polish Socialists. As a doctor his patients were mostly poor Jews.
1939, Germany invaded Poland, and the brutality of the Nazis accelerated
with murder, violence and terror.
the time, Irena was a Senior Administrator in the Warsaw Social Welfare
Department, which operated the canteens in every district of the city.
Previously, the canteens provided meals, financial aid, and other services
for orphans, the elderly, the poor and the destitute. Now, through Irena,
the canteens also provided clothing, medicine and money for the Jews. They
were registered under fictitious Christian names, and to prevent
inspections, the Jewish families were reported as being afflicted with
such highly infectious diseases as typhus and tuberculosis.
in 1942, the Nazis herded hundreds of thousands of Jews into a 16-block
area that came to be known as the Warsaw Ghetto. The Ghetto was
sealed and the Jewish families ended up behind its walls, only to await
Sendler was so appalled by the conditions that she joined Zegota, the
Council for Aid to Jews, organized by the Polish underground
resistance movement, as one of its first recruits and directed the efforts
to rescue Jewish children.
be able to enter the Ghetto legally, Irena managed to be issued a pass
from Warsaws Epidemic Control Department and she visited the Ghetto
daily, reestablished contacts and brought food, medicines and clothing.
But 5,000 people were dying a month from starvation and disease in the
Ghetto, and she decided to help the Jewish children to get out.
Irena Sendler, a young mother herself, persuading parents to part with
their children was in itself a horrendous task. Finding families willing
to shelter the children, and thereby willing to risk their life if the
Nazis ever found out, was also not easy.
Sendler, who wore a star armband as a sign of her solidarity to
Jews, began smuggling children out in an ambulance. She recruited at least
one person from each of the ten centers of the Social Welfare Department.
their help, she issued hundreds of false documents with forged signatures.
Irena Sendler successfully smuggled almost 2,500 Jewish children to safety
and gave them temporary new identities.
children were taken out in gunnysacks or body bags. Some were buried
inside loads of goods. A mechanic took a baby out in his toolbox. Some
kids were carried out in potato sacks, others were placed in coffins, some
entered a church in the Ghetto which had two entrances. One entrance
opened into the Ghetto, the other opened into the Aryan side of
Warsaw. They entered the church as Jews and exited as Christians. "`Can
you guarantee they will live?'" Irena later recalled the
distraught parents asking. But she could only guarantee they would die if
they stayed. "In my dreams," she said, "I still
hear the cries when they left their parents."
Sendler accomplished her incredible deeds with the active assistance of
the church. "I sent most of the children to religious
establishments," she recalled. "I knew I could count on
the Sisters." Irena also had a remarkable record of cooperation
when placing the youngsters: "No one ever refused to take a child
from me," she said.
children were given false identities and placed in homes, orphanages and
convents. Irena Sendler carefully noted, in coded form, the children's
original names and their new identities. She kept the only record of their
true identities in jars buried beneath an apple tree in a neighbor's back
yard, across the street from German barracks, hoping she could someday dig
up the jars, locate the children and inform them of their past.
all, the jars contained the names of 2,500 children ...
the Nazis became aware of Irena's activities, and on October 20, 1943 she
was arrested, imprisoned and tortured by the Gestapo, who broke her feet
and legs. She ended up in the Pawiak Prison, but no one could break
her spirit. Though she was the only one who knew the names and addresses
of the families sheltering the Jewish children, she withstood the torture,
refusing to betray either her associates or any of the Jewish children in
to death, Irena was saved at the last minute when Zegota members
bribed one of the Germans to halt the execution. She escaped from prison
but for the rest of the war she was pursued by the Gestapo.
the war she dug up the jars and used the notes to track down the 2,500
children she placed with adoptive families and to reunite them with
relatives scattered across Europe. But most lost their families during the
Holocaust in Nazi death camps.
children had known her only by her code name Jolanta. But years
later, after she was honored for her wartime work, her picture appeared in
a newspaper. "A man, a painter, telephoned me," said Sendler, "`I remember your face,' he said. `It was you who took me
out of the ghetto.' I had many calls like that!"
Sendler did not think of herself as a hero. She claimed no credit for her
actions. "I could have done more," she said. "This
regret will follow me to my death."
has been honored by international Jewish organizations - in 1965 she
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
Irena Sendler was awarded Poland's highest distinction, the Order of White
Eagle in Warsaw Monday Nov. 10, 2003.
This lovely, courageous woman was one of the most dedicated and active
workers in aiding Jews during the Nazi occupation of Poland. Her courage
enabled not only the survival of 2,500 Jewish children but also of the
generations of their descendants.