“I’m no heroine. I only did what any moral person would do,” Irena Sendler protested with understated modesty. “I simply tried to help the people in need.”
Irena Sendler, the 94-year old lady in a Warsaw nursing home, was talking to a group of American educators touring Holocaust-related sites in Poland. After their visit, the group declared that the highlight of their tour was the encounter with Irena Sendler, who had risked her life to save 2,500 Jewish children from the Nazi murder machine, more than twice as many lives then the celebrated Oskar Schindler!
How did she do it? Employed in the social welfare department of the Warsaw municipality, Irena received a special permit to enter the ghetto at all times, ostensibly for the purpose of combating contagious diseases. This gave her the opportunity to provide many Jews with clothing, medicine, and money. On the streets of the ghetto Irena Sendler wore an armband with the yellow Star of David, in order to show solidarity with the Jewish inhabitants and to move about undetected.
When at the end of the summer in 1942, Irena was asked to join Zegota, the Polish Council for Aid to Jews, she already had a widespread network of contacts in place, both in the ghetto and on the “Aryan” side. This underground network made it possible for Irena to smuggle Jewish children out of the ghetto and find secure places for them with Polish families in the Warsaw region.
Irena kept a dog that she trained to bark when the Nazi soldiers let her in and out of the ghetto. The soldiers, of course, ignored the dog and it’s barking, which successfully overwhelmed the sounds the small children emitted, hiding their presence.
What’s more, Ms. Sendler organized fellow volunteers to take on responsibility for several apartments where Jewish children were sheltered; she herself oversaw ten apartments where Jews were hiding under her care.
Irena kept a record of the names of all the children she had smuggled out, and placed them in a glass jar that she buried under a tree in her back yard.
Was it the work of informers that caused the October 1943 arrest of this righteous woman by the Gestapo and her incarceration in the notorious Pawiak prison for a most ruthless, inhuman interrogation? When repeated brutal torture failed to break her spirit and she refused to reveal the names of her Jewish charges and Polish fellow workers, Irena Sendler was condemned to death.
However, a miracle saved her life: Irena’s underground partners succeeded in bribing one of the Gestapo agents, and on the appointed morning of her execution she was secretly released from prison, her name remaining on the public list of those executed. Although this compelled her to stay out of sight for the remainder of the German occupation, Ms. Sendler was undeterred in her underground activities for Zegota (the Polish Council for Aid to Jews).
After the war, she dug up the jar and made every effort to locate the children’s parents who may have survived. Unfortunately her efforts at reuniting the families failed.
Most parents, grandparents, siblings had been murdered. The little orphaned children Irena helped were placed into foster family homes or adopted.
This remarkable Righteous Gentile died five years ago on May 12, 2008.
A year before her death, Irena Sendler was a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize. However, she lost to her rival, Al Gore, who won for his work on publicizing Global Warming.