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February 6, 2018

“I’m No Hero”: The Life Saving Acts of Irena Sendler

Winner of the Spring 2018 StMU History Media Award for

Best Article in the Category of “Political History”

Best Article in the Category of “World History”

At the age of twenty-nine, Irena Sendler was a social worker with the Polish welfare department when Hitler invaded Poland in September 1939, launching World War II. But before that, Sendler had a unique childhood, growing up in the Polish town of Otwock. In her small town, Irena played with the other children. It never mattered to her or her family that the other children were Jewish, and they were Roman Catholic. During college, she studied Polish literature and became active in the Polish Socialist party.1
Warsaw Ghetto boarders in November 1940 | Courtesy of Wikipedia
In October 1940, around 450,000 Jews were held in a 16-block neighborhood in Warsaw, marking the opening of the Warsaw Ghetto. The conditions that the people lived in were horrendous: packed houses, limited or no food and water, diseases running rampant.2 Hundreds of Jews were dying each week from sickness, starvation, and bullets. That same year, Irena Sendler joined the Polish Underground. Working as a social worker and working with the Polish Underground, Sendler had unique access to the ghettos given to her by city officials. Her official reason for being there was to help fight contagious diseases, because the Germans there did not want to risk getting sick themselves. Her unofficial reason for being there was to provide clothing, medicine, money, and false documents.3 Inside the Warsaw Ghetto, Sendler would often wear the Star of David on her arm, to show that she was united with the Jewish people and so that she would not draw attention to herself.4 Eventually, she began to smuggle people out of the ghetto and move them to places of safety. Between the years 1939 and 1942, Irena and her helpers made over five hundred false documents to help Jewish families escape from the ghettos.5
Polish Underground Symbol | Courtesy of Wikipedia
Sendler’s work in the Polish Underground brought her to the Council for Aid to Jews, known by the code name “Zegota.”6 This organization was dedicated to helping Jewish families and was funded in part by the Polish Government in exile in London. It was a dangerous time for people to be helping Jews. Those who were found hiding Jews were executed, along with their entire family. By 1942, extermination camps, like Auschwitz and Treblinka, had been constructed to hold and exterminate Jews. Sendler knew that if she wanted to help more, she needed to act quickly. She was sent to the ghetto to monitor typhus. In 1917, when Sendler was just seven, her father Dr. Stanislaw Krzyzanowski had died from treating sick Jews. Her father had been the only doctor in their hometown who would treat sick Jews.7 Dr. Krzyzanowski remained a lifelong influence in her life and was the main reason behind her actions during the war. In December of 1942, Irena Sendler was made head of Zegota’s children division, because of her previous experience smuggling false papers in and providing exits for Jews in the ghetto. The children that she rescued only knew her by her code name “Jolanta,” which Zegota gave her to deter any of the Germans from discovering their group.8 Sendler and her team of about two dozen or so, including Antoni Dzbrowski, a driver who would hide children in his lorry truck, would smuggle children out of the ghettos.9 She would ask mothers to give up their children, not being able to promise that they would survive or even make it through the ghetto gates. She gave them hope that there was a small chance for their children’s survival, a chance greater than staying in the ghetto. One mother gave up her daughter Elzbieta Ficowska, leaving her with only a small silver spoon with her name and birth date written on it.10 Other means of escape were through fake deaths. Children would be given sleeping medicine and were able to pass through because German officials were told the children died of typhus. Other children were brought to the sewer. There were reports of a dog that was taught to bark to cover the cries of babies.11 The most popular escape route, however, was through the Warsaw Municipal Law Courts, which shared an edge with the Warsaw ghetto. The courthouse had secret doors on both sides and underground corridors, and Zegota members bribed the Polish Officials who oversaw the patrolling of the corridors, so the children were able to be smuggled out unseen.12
I was taught that if you see a person drowning, you must jump into the water to save them, whether you can swim or not.13
The children who escaped were provided with false identities. Many of the children were taught Christian prayers and would live with Christian families who agreed to take them in. Some children would go to live in Catholic or non-religious convents and orphanages. Sendler would write the child’s Jewish name, their parents’ name, and the child’s new Polish name down in code to be buried in jam jars under a neighbor’s tree.14 On April 19, 1943, the Nazis began to liquidate the ghettos, which meant that the Jews who were considered able to work would be sent to concentration camps and those who were not would be killed. It took the Nazis more than a month to finish the liquidation, due to the uprising within the Warsaw ghetto. The Polish Underground was fighting outside the ghetto, aiming for German trucks. By then, only about 55,000 Jews remained alive, either from escaping or from being left in the ghettos.15 True to their word, the Nazis were dedicated to capturing and killing all those who were aiding Jewish people. A member of the underground was caught and tortured, and he gave up Sendler’s name and address. On October 20, 1943, the Nazi Gestapo raided Sendler’s apartment and arrested her. Sendler was taken to the notorious Pawiak Prison in Warsaw, a place where many went in, but few left alive.16 At the prison, she was first asked to reveal the names of people she worked with, the names of children she saved, and her current living arrangement, but she remained silent. Then she was tortured, her feet and then legs were broken with the use of clubs. She still did not talk. She was beaten and tortured more, but she never spoke a word. After realizing that she would never tell them anything, the Nazis publicly announced her death. She was sentenced to die by firing squad. Unknown to her, Zegota had been working on her escape. The organization bribed a German guard to release her on the morning of her execution and the guard followed through. The Germans did not want to admit officially that she had escape, so Sendler was listed on public bulletin boards as among those executed.17
Irena Sendler on Christmas Eve of 1944 | Courtesy of The Book Haven
Irena Sendler then went into hiding like the children that she had been sent to rescue. However, she managed to continue her work under a different name. When World War II finally ended in 1945, she hoped to reunite many of the 2,500 children taken out of the Ghetto with their parents. Irena Sendler dug up the jars, but by that point the Ghetto was largely empty. Many of the Jewish parents had died during the Holocaust, and few were able to find their children. Most of the ghetto families had died in the ghetto or in the nearby Treblinka death camp. Between the years 1940 and 1943, Irena “Jolanta” Sendler and her team smuggled about 2,500 children out of the Warsaw ghetto.18 The total estimated lives that Sendler saved was about 3,000. Irena Sendler’s struggle did not end when the war ended. After the war, Poland became a Soviet ally and fell under Communist rule. Irena was able to start using her real name once again and leave her life of hiding, but she faced harassment because of her work with Zegota, which also held many anti-communist beliefs.19 She married and got pregnant, but due to the harassment and stress, her son was born prematurely and died. Sendler continued her social work by founding and funding orphanages and nursing homes.
The term ‘heroine’ irritates me greatly. The opposite is true. I continue to have pangs of conscience that I did so little.20
Irena Sendler in 2005, age 93 | Courtesy of PBS
The first official recognition of her actions during the war came in 1965, when she was named one of the Righteous Among the Nations. Irena Sendler was one of the first to be awarded this title. However, she was not able to receive the medal until 1983, when she obtained a passport to travel to Israel. In 2000, a group of students from Kansas created a play called Life in a Jar. In 2003 she was honored with the Order of the White Eagle, Poland’s most esteemed award given to civilians and military for their actions.21 In 2007, she was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, but lost to Al Gore’s presentation of Global Warming. She died in 2008, at the age of 98. But her story did not end with her death. In 2009, the film The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler was released.
  1. Antony Polonsky, “Obituary: Irena Sendler: Polish social worker who saved around 2,500 Jewish children from the Nazis,” The Guardian, May 14, 2008 https://www.theguardian.com/world/2008/may/14/secondworldwar.poland.
  2. Joachim Wieler, “Remembering Irena Sendler: A Mother Courage honored as most distinguished social worker of IFSW,” International Social Work 51 (November 2008): 835.
  3. Ronald Smelser, Learning About the Holocaust: A Student’s Guide-Irena Sendler (2001), 6-7.
  4. Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2008, s.v. “Irena Sendler.”
  5. Elaine Woo, “Irena Sendler, 98; saved 2,500 children in the Holocaust,” Los Angeles Times, May 13, 2008 http://archive.boston.com/bostonglobe/obituaries/articles/2008/05/13/irena_sendler_98_saved_2500_children_in_the_holocaust/?page=2.
  6. Pulgarin Bilvao and Lissette Paola,” Irena Sendler: A Nurse Example of Love of Freedom,” Investigacion & Educacion En Enfermeria 30, no. 2 (July 2012).
  7. “Call Her the Nazis’ Nightmare; Act with Courage: Irena Sendler saved thousands of kids from the Warsaw ghetto,” Investor’s Business Daily February 4, 2004.
  8. Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2008, s.v. “Irena Sendler.”
  9. Antony Polonsky, “Obituary: Irena Sendler: Polish social worker who saved around 2,500 Jewish children from the Nazis,” The Guardian, May 14, 2008. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2008/may/14/secondworldwar.poland.
  10. Maggie Jones, “The Smuggler,” The New York Times December 27, 2008. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/28/magazine/28sendler-t.html.
  11. “Call Her the Nazis’ Nightmare; Act with Courage: Irena Sendler saved thousands of kids from the Warsaw ghetto,” Investor’s Business Daily, February 4, 2004.
  12. Dennis Hevesi, “Irena Sendler, 98, Lifeline to Young Jews,” New York Times May 13, 2008 http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/13/world/europe/13sendler.html.
  13. “Meet Unsung Hero Irena Sendler,” Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes, June 11, 2014 https://lowellmilkencenter.org/irena-sendler.
  14. Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2008, s.v. “Irena Sendler.”
  15. Dennis Hevesi, “Irena Sendler, 98, Lifeline to Young Jews,” New York Times, May 13, 2008 http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/13/world/europe/13sendler.html.
  16. Joachim Wieler, “Remembering Irena Sendler: A Mother Courage honored as most distinguished social worker of IFSW,” International Social Work 51 (November 2008): 836.
  17. Rosemary Feitelberg, “Irena Sendler: Heroine of the  Holocaust,” WWD: Women’s Wear Daily 195, no. 65 (March 27, 2008): 19.
  18. Joachim Wieler, “Remembering Irena Sendler: A Mother Courage honoured as most distinguished social worker of IFSW,” International Social Work 51 (Nov, 2008): 835.
  19. Joachim Wieler, “Remembering Irena Sendler: A Mother Courage honored as most distinguished social worker of IFSW,” International Social Work 51 (November 2008): 837.
  20. Richard Pendlebury, “The ‘female Schindler’ who saved 2,500 Jewish children but died wishing she’d rescued more,” Daily Mail Online, May 22, 2008 http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-1021048/Female-Schindler-Irena-Sendler-saved-2-500-Jewish-children-died-aged-98.html.
  21. Antony Polonsky, “Obituary: Irena Sendler: Polish social worker who saved around 2,500 Jewish children from the Nazis” The Guardian, May 14, 2008 https://www.theguardian.com/world/2008/may/14/secondworldwar.poland.

Tags from the story

Holocaust

Irena Sendler

Recent Comments

Erin Vento

I’m so glad that I read this article. People as brave and moral as Irena Sendler deserve to be honored and talked about. The article was so in depth and thinking about one person being able to rescue 3,000 people on her own and being brutally tortured seems so unbelievable, but the article really helped me to imagine all of it.

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24/02/2018

4:19 pm

Jose Figueroa

This article tells a beautiful story of human selflessness. Irina, who was inspired by her father, was able to save the lives of thousands of kids. This number may seem small compared to those she could not save, but due to the difficulty of this, it was a huge accomplishment. Despite this, is was sad to see she was not recognized for her work and failed to receive a Nobel peace prize.

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25/02/2018

4:19 pm

Robert Rodriguez

This was an amazing article! its sad that we were taught so much about the holocaust in school but never about the heroes of those times like Sendler. Her acts of selflessness were absolutely heartwarming to me, risking her life to save thousands of people even after being tortured by Nazis is unimaginable to me. I honestly believed she should be recognized more for her work that put her life at risk. The article was very detailed; It got me to picture how she helped those people escape and the nerves she must’ve had.

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25/02/2018

4:19 pm

Elias Garza

I never supported the actions Hitler committed during his time and I appreciate the help Irena Sendler gave to the Jews. Although she was not able to save all of them like we all would have loved, any help is always better than no help at all. Reading this article gives me hope that if anything tragic like that happens again, someone will try to help. All in all, I enjoyed this article all the through.

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25/02/2018

4:19 pm

Alexandra Lopez

Reading about the bravery of Irena Sendler made me feel as if I should’ve known about her prior to doing so. Sendler was an extremely giving person. She risked her life for strangers she didn’t know. She provided a safe place in her heart to for these victims to rest in, to reside in, makes me wish I could’ve known her. The details provided in this article are bare and raw, completely eye opening. This article practically provided enough detail for me to make it into a film in my head. It’s amazing to read about how Sendler and her allies helped rescue so many families. Truly uplifting and inspiring.

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25/02/2018

4:19 pm

Robert Flores

wow this woman is simply amazing! I can not believe i never heard of her. The way she sacrificed her time and body for the lives of others is so inspiring. To me she should be honored with the label of sainthood along with the many other awards she received during her lifetime. I think everybody should know her story

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25/02/2018

4:19 pm

Bryan Martin Patino

shes not war hero in the sense of what you would think but i feel like shes hero none the less, one that resembles Harriet Tubman. It is amazing that she was able to help so many kids in the time where doing that would lead to murder. it is a shame that so many kids lost there parents but its hard to not look on the bright side and see that they where able to survive the horrible times and go on to live their lives.

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01/03/2018

4:19 pm

Rafael Lopez-Rodriguez

Great article! Doing an act like this during a time where the world is going through so much is definetly an act that deserves recognition. Being able to save lives during times of war is something very hard to do. Sadly I have never learned about this woman in any of my history classes. Being able to read this article has expanded my knowledge on this historic event.

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03/03/2018

4:19 pm

Christopher Sanchez

Reading this article shown me that there were people that were willing to risk their lives during war to save other lives. These were times that people weren’t treated humanely and needed someone to help them. It was like Irene said, “if you see a person drowning always jump in to save them even if you don’t know how to swim.” It’s amazing that there were organizations such as the Polish Underground that aided Jew’s from Nazi forces.

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09/03/2018

4:19 pm

Timothy ODekirk

What a temendous story about the life and works of Irena Sendler. I was always a fan of the movie, “Schindler’s List”, and this stiory of Irena Sendler is quite similar to the story of Oskar Schindler. Irena Sendler definitely had courage to do what she did. My favorite part of this story is when Sendler was sentenced to execution to die, but then eventually escaped and she ended up to live an old age. That shows the courage that she had and the determination that she had to escape the horrors of the time that she was facing. This was definitely an interesting and entertaining story about the life of a person during the Holocaust who decided to save the people who were being executed for their religious belief.

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18/03/2018

4:19 pm

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