“You see a man drowning, you must try to save him even if you cannot swim.”
― Life In A Jar
She was a woman of great courage, risking her life to rescue 2,500 Jewish children. People may wonder how could one person save so many children. It was in her nature to help others. She said that her parents taught her, “…if a man is drowning, it is irrelevant what is his religion or nationality. One must help him.”
Her father, a doctor, devoted himself to caring for impoverished Jews suffering from an outbreak of a typhus at the end of World War I. Sadly, he contracted the disease from his patients and passed away. Irena was only 7 years old at the time. She and her mother left Otwock and returned to Warsaw where Irena was born. She finished school and attended the University of Warsaw.
During that time, rules were enforced to keep Jewish and non-Jewish students segregated. They weren’t allowed to sit together inside or outside of class. When Irena refused to obey these rules, she was suspended for a year. However, she still managed to complete her studies.
Raised by kind and compassionate parents, it’s not surprising that Irena would risk her life to help the Jews. When the Nazis occupied Poland, she set about making forged documents for Jewish friends. She offered food and shelter to the Jewish population who faced increasing persecution. She made false documents for those who escaped or had gone into hiding, avoiding the Ghetto. With the help of trusted friends, she forged over 3,000 documents to save Jewish families.
In the fall of 1942, two Polish women, Zofia Kossak-Szczucka and Wanda Krahelska-Filipowicz founded Zegota—the Council for Aid to Jews in occupied Poland. It was a branch of the Polish underground. When Irena was asked to head the Children’s Department, she readily agreed, despite the danger to herself. It was a decision made from the heart. She wanted to be a part of the rescue.
With the help of social workers, Irena began rescuing the children from the Ghetto. They took orphans living on the streets of the Ghetto. She met with parents to ask their permission to take their children out. She placed them with families, in convents, orphanages, making clear to those who took them in that this was a temporary arrangement. She planned to return the children to their families after the war. For this reason, she kept detailed lists.
Younger children were placed in gunny sacks or toolboxes and carried out of the Ghetto. Once she hid a child in a coffin. Sometimes, she took sick children in the ambulance and sometimes, even healthy children. She took great risks to rescue these children and it wasn’t before long when the Nazis began to suspect her.
On October 20, 1943, five months after the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto, the Germans arrested her because someone had informed on her, giving the Germans her address. She was beaten and tortured for several days resulting in a fractured leg and foot. When she refused to reveal the whereabouts of the children or the names of anyone in the Resistance, she was sentenced to be executed. However, members of Zegota found out and bribed a guard to leave her in the woods where they found and rescued her. Since her name was on lists of people who had been shot by the Gestapo, she spent the rest of the war in hiding.
After the war was over, she set about finding the children she saved to reunite them with their families. Sadly, most of them were orphans. Their parents had either been killed at the Treblinka extermination camp or had gone missing. Thanks to Irena, those children didn’t suffer the same fate as their parents.
Irena’s story was made into the movie, The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler and she was portrayed by actress Anna Paquin. Irena was made an honorary citizen of Israel, awarded the Commander’s Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta, receiving a higher version of this award which was the Commander’s Cross with Star, on 7 November 2001. She wasn’t known in North America until high-school students in Kansas and their teacher produced a play, Life in a Jar which was based on their research on her life story. It was a success. It was staged over 200 times in the United States and abroad. It was key in bringing Sendler’s story to the public.
On this Remembrance Day, I would like to take a moment to acknowledge this courageous woman who stood up in the face of unspeakable evil and saved so many innocent lives.
“Fear makes you weak; anger makes you strong.”
“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.”
“Heroes do extraordinary things. What I did was not an extraordinary thing. It was normal.”
“The world can be better if there’s love, tolerance and humility.”
Sources: Wikipedia; The Jewish Woman.org; Entity Magazine