In the midst of the horror of WWII, there were brave, selfless people who remind us of the goodness that was, and is, present in the world. Irena Sendler was one of these people. Despite the reign of terror Hitler was perpetrating on her home country of Poland, Irena stood up for what’s right and, in doing so, saved the lives of thousands of Jewish children.
Irena was born in Warsaw, Poland, in 1910. Her father was a doctor who treated low-income patients, many of whom were Jewish. When the typhus epidemic struck in 1917, many of his coworkers refused to continue their work. Irena’s father was not deterred however, and he continued treating his patients despite the risk. Ultimately, this decision cost him his life, and he died of typhus that same year. Irena was only seven years old.
Growing up without her father could not have been easy for Irena, especially as an only child, but it did not stop her from following in his footsteps. When she grew up, Jewish leaders in the community, grateful for her father’s service, helped send her to Warsaw University, where she studied literature. However, she was suspended from school for three years for publicly protesting the ghetto-bench system, which was an anti-Semitic form of segregation being instituted at several Polish universities.
It should come as no surprise, then, that as Hitler began rising to power, Irena was unwilling to stand idly by and watch the mistreatment of the Jewish families around her. In 1939, she began using her position as a social worker to help Jews by offering them food and shelter. However, the following year, when the Warsaw Ghetto was established and over 400,000 Jews were forced to live in an area of only 1.3 square miles under terrible conditions, it became clear that Irena was going to have to go outside of traditional channels if she was to continue making a difference.
As a result, Irena joined Zegota, an underground group of Polish men and women dedicated to helping the Jews through providing food, medicine, shelter and often, false identities. Irena soon became the head of their Children’s Division. She used her credentials as a social worker, and papers from a fellow Zegota worker who was with the Contagious Disease Department, to infiltrate the ghetto. The Nazis were fearful disease would spread beyond the ghetto and it was Irena’s job to check inhabitants for typhus. But once inside, she began the seemingly impossible task of rescuing orphans and convincing Jewish parents to give her their children.
Knowing what the future held for their children if they remained in the ghetto, Jewish parents made the heart-wrenching decision to give their children over to Irena, knowing full well that this meant they might never see them again. Irena and her fellow Zegota members then smuggled the children out of the ghetto using whatever means were available. Often, she would hide them under a stretcher in an ambulance or place them inside a suitcase and carry them out on a trolley. Other times, she would help them escape by leading them out through underground passages or even the sewer system.
Once outside of the ghetto, Irena and her helpers would hide the children. They forged Catholic birth certificates and papers and trained the children to recite Christian prayers. From there, they were placed in convents and orphanages outside the city where they would be safe. Irena and the other members of the Zegota’s children division kept meticulous records so that the children could be reunited with their parents after the war. Unfortunately, most of the parents were soon sent to the Treblinka death camps, and, as such, this reunion was very rarely possible.
Irena continued her work with the children of the Warsaw Ghetto for three years before being captured by the Gestapo on 20 October 1943. She was imprisoned, interrogated and tortured. They broke her legs and fractured her feet. Still, she refused to give up information about her operation. As a result, she was sentenced to death.
Thankfully, one of Irena’s fellow Zegota members bribed a guard, and Irena was able to escape just before her scheduled execution. She lived the rest of the war in hiding, just like the children she rescued. Thanks to her effort and tremendous sacrifice, more than 2,500 children were saved. Irena died in 2008, but her legacy lives on in the lives of every child who survived because of her tremendous strength and sacrifice.
References: The Irena Sendler Project, PBS: In The Name of Their Mothers, Jewish Virtual Library, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum,Yad Vashem.
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