Irena Sendler (1910 – 2008) was a Polish Catholic social worker who served in a Polish resistance organisation in German-occupied Warsaw during World War II. The daughter of socialist and medical parents, the young woman was already committed to saving human life wherever possible, but that seemed like an improbable dream in Nazi-controlled Poland.
Jewish children in the Warsaw Ghetto, 1942
Using these typhoid-focused inspection tours of sanitary conditions, Sendler and a team of other brave Catholic women smuggled out babies and small children in ambulances and public transport, wrapping the toddlers up as parcels. She also used the old courthouse at the edge of the Warsaw Ghetto as one of the main routes for smuggling out children.
As soon as it was safe to do so, the rescuers found heroic Polish Catholic families who would take the Jewish children in, as if they were their own nieces and nephews. When they couldn’t find families, Sendler used the Sisters of the Family of Mary orphanage in Warsaw, or various Roman Catholic convents more distant from the capital city. It is estimated that the team saved 2,500 Jewish children by getting them safely out of the Warsaw Ghetto, against all odds.
The project only came to an end in 1943 because Sendler was captured by the Gestapo and sentenced to death. But she had taken precautions. She had carefully noted, in coded form, the children’s original names and their new identities. She buried the records for safe keeping, hoping she could one day reunite the children with their true parents. Alas not a single Jewish mother or father survived the war.
Sendler in Epidemic Control Section uniform, 1942
The Polish Genealogy Project has a wonderful photo of Irena in a Social Welfare Department car, during Warsaw’s 1st May Parade in 1948.
Again against all the odds, Sendler survived into old age. Quite rightly, she was recognised by Yad Vashem in Jerusalem as one of the Righteous among the Nations in 1965. Sadly Poland wouldn't allow her to travel to Israel until 1983; then she could finally be acknowledged before the entire Jewish world. Clearly things have changed in Poland. Joedresch's blog noted that Irena Sendler was awarded Poland’s highest distinction, the Order of White Eagle in 2003, and she won the Jan Karski award for Valour and Courage in 2003. This very very old lady was officially designated a national hero in Poland and schools have been named in her honour.
Sendler was nominated for The 2007 Nobel Peace Prize; eventually it was awarded to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and Al Gore, which was as it should have been. But what a shame that Irena Sendler wasn’t nominated earlier. Like Winton in Britain, they waited until she was 100 years old before giving her the recognition she so richly deserved.
Two films have been made, celebrating her life. Irena Sendler, In the Name of Their Mothers 2003 was a documentary based on the last interviews given by Irena Sendler before she died, and interviews with some of the children she saved. And The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler 2010 is a dramatic recreation of the events of 1942 and 1943.
A book called The Other Schindler: Irena Sendler was written by Abhijit Thite and appeared in 2010. The publishers used an imaginative method to release the book; they held their launch next to the tree planted by Irena Sendler herself, along the Avenue of the Righteous in Jerusalem.
Avenue of the Righteous Gentiles, Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, Jerusalem