“My parents taught me that if a man is drowning, it is irrelevant what is his religion or nationality. One must help him.” —Irena Sendler
Irena Sendler (1910 – 2008), was a Polish nurse, humanitarian and social worker who rescued 2500 children from the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II. She saved more Jews than any other individual during the Holocaust.
With a 4’11” frame and a sweet, girlish face that made her seem younger than her 27 years, Irena Sendler managed to smuggle out 2500 children during the Holocaust. 2500 children—imagine that! She entered the Warsaw Ghetto (an area the size of Central Park that 450,000 Jewish people were forced to live) everyday for 18 months by showing her social worker papers and also pretending to be working with the Contagious Disease Department. She knew that the Germans were paranoid about the spread of germs, so they readily let her into the annexed area. At first, she saved orphans living on the streets, but then went to the parents, who would always allow her to take their children with her, promising to reunite them when the war was over. Working with her social worker colleagues, Irena managed to smuggle children out in gunny sacks, suitcases, toolboxes, under potatoes in a cart, ambulances and coffins. She also kept a trained dog in her car that would bark if a child started to whimper on the way out, threatening detection. The dog’s bark would create a chain reaction of chaos through the Gestapo’s dogs, and the guards would let her pass.
Irena placed the children in convents and non-Jewish homes, and keeping her promise to the parents, wrote down the names on slips of paper which she placed in jars and buried in her garden. She always stayed just ahead of the Gestapo, though at one point, she was captured. One of her colleagues managed to to bribe the guard for her release, and she spent the next three years in hiding. When the war was over, she stayed true to her commitment by digging up the glass jars in the yard and trying to reconnect families with the children where possible. Sadly, only 1% of the Warsaw Ghetto Jews survived, but Irena maintained contact with many of the children, who thought of her as a mother figure.
It’s astounding that though she saved more lives than Schindler, little was known about her until 2000, when four middle school girls in Kansas began researching her for a history project. They had been given a newspaper clipping briefly mentioning Irena, and the students couldn’t believe the number of rescues was correct. They pursued the story, and to their delight, found that the 90-year old heroine was still alive in Poland. The girls wrote a play called “Life in a Jar,” which won the National History Day Competition, and brought Irena’s story to the spotlight. When they visited Irena in Poland and performed the play for government officials, much publicity was made of their story, and the sixty-year silence about the Holocaust was broken. More and more survivors began to come out with their stories. Since then, Holocaust Education in Poland has changed dramatically.
Her bravery should take our breath away. Yet, she thought humbly of herself, and only regretted not saving more.
“Every child saved with my help and the help of all the wonderful secret messengers, who today are no longer living, is the justification of my existence on this earth, and not a title to glory.” —Irena Sendler