Thursday, 30 August 2012

Irena Sendler - Liberator of WWII Jewish children

Irene Sendler
Irena Sendler  (née Krzyżanowska, AKA in Poland Irena Sendlerowa, Nom de guerre Jolanta)
 15 February 1910 – 12 May 2008 

In a letter to the Polish Government, Irena said:  “Every child saved with my help is the justification of my existence on this Earth, and not a title to glory”

Irene Sendler was a Polish Catholic social worker who served in the Polish Underground and the Żegota resistance organization in German-occupied Warsaw during World War II.

As early as 1939, when the Germans invaded Poland, she began aiding Jews.   She and her helpers created over 3,000 false documents to help Jewish families, prior to joining the organized Żegota resistance and the children's division.    
Nazi German poster in German and Polish (Warsaw, 1942) threatening death to any Pole who aided Jews

Helping Jews was very risky—in German-occupied Poland, all household members risked death if they were found to be hiding Jews, a more severe punishment than in other occupied European countries.

In August 1943, Żegota (the Council to Aid Jews) nominated her (by her cover name Jolanta to head its children's section. 

Irena, got permission to work in the Warsaw ghetto, as a Plumbing/Sewer specialist

She had an ulterior motive.

Irene Sendler in uniform
 As an employee of the Social Welfare Department, she had a special permit to enter the Warsaw Ghetto to check for signs of typhus, something the Nazis feared would spread beyond the Ghetto.  During these visits, she wore a Star of David as a sign of solidarity with the Jewish people and so as not to call attention to herself.

 "Irena knew she had to help the sick and starving Jews who were imprisoned in the Warsaw Ghetto. She began by smuggling food, clothing, and medicine into the ghetto, then turned to smuggling children out of the ghetto." (except from Irena's Jars of Secrets by Marcia Vaughn and Ron Mazellan)

She cooperated with others in Warsaw's Municipal Social Services department, and the RGO (Central Welfare Council), a Polish relief organization that was tolerated under German supervision.   She and her co-workers organized the smuggling of Jewish children out of the Ghetto.   

Rescued Jewish baby from Ghetto
Under the pretext of conducting inspections of sanitary conditions during a typhus outbreak, Sendler and her co-workers visited the Ghetto and smuggled out babies and small children in ambulances and trams, sometimes disguising them as packages.   Irena also smuggled Jewish infants out in the bottom of the tool box she carried.  She also carried a burlap sack in the back of her truck, for larger kids.  Irena kept a dog in the back that she trained to bark when the Nazi soldiers let her in and out of the ghetto.   The soldiers, of course, wanted nothing to do with the dog and the barking covered the kids/infants noises.

Children in Warsaw Ghetto
Assisted by some two dozen other Żegota members, Sendler smuggled 2,500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto and then provided them with false identity documents and with housing outside the Ghetto, thereby saving those children from being killed in the Holocaust.  She rescued the Jewish children in different education and care facilities for children in Anin, Białołęka, Chotomów, Międzylesie, Płudy, Sejny, Vilnius and others.  She also used the old courthouse at the edge of the Warsaw Ghetto (still standing) as one of the main routes for smuggling out children.

The children were placed with Polish families, the Warsaw orphanage of the Sisters of the Family of Mary, or Roman Catholic convents such as the Little Sister Servants of the Blessed Virgin Mary Conceived Immaculate[11] at Turkowice and Chotomów. Sendler cooperated very closely with social worker and catholic nun, mother provincial of Franciscan Sisters of the Family of Mary - Matylda Getter.     Some children were smuggled to priests in parish rectories.   

She and her co-workers buried lists of the hidden children in jars in order to keep track of their original and new identities.   Żegota assured the children that, when the war was over, they would be returned to Jewish relatives.

The Nazis eventually discovered her activities, tortured her, and sentenced her to death (the Nazi's broke both of her legs and arms and beat her severely);  but Żegota saved her by bribing German guards on the way to her execution.   She was listed on public bulletin boards as among those executed.    

For the remainder of the war, she lived in hiding, but continued her work for the Jewish children.  
Jewish children imprisoned by the Nazis
After the war, she and her co-workers gathered together all of their records with the names and locations of the hidden Jewish children and gave them to their Zegota colleague Adolf Berman and his employees at the Central Committee of Polish Jews. However, almost all of their parents had been killed at the Treblinka extermination camp or had otherwise gone missing.

Later at the Soviet takeover of Poland, Irena Sendler was persecuted by the communist Polish state authorities for her relations with the Polish government in exile and with the Home Army.   During this period she miscarried her second child.

"Motivated by conscience and armed with compassion and a belief in human dignity, Irena Sendler confronted an enormous moral challenge and proved to the world that an ordinary person can accomplish deeds of extraordinary courage."  (except from Irena's Jars of Secrets by Marcia Vaughn and Ron Mazellan)

Awards and Recognition she received after the War 

In 1965, Sendler was recognized by Yad Vashem as one of the Righteous among the Nations.  

The Commander's Cross by the Israeli Institute.  Only in that year did the Polish communist government allow her to travel abroad, to receive the award in Israel.
In 2003, Pope John Paul II sent Sendler  a personal letter praising her wartime efforts.   
Order of the White Eagle

On 10 October 2003 she received the Order of the White Eagle, Poland's highest civilian decoration

As well in 2003, the Jan Karski Award "For Courage and Heart," given by the American Center of Polish Culture in Washington, D.C.. 

She was also awarded the Commander's Cross with Star of the Order of Polonia Restituta (November 7, 2001).

On 14 March 2007, Sendler was honored by Poland's Senate.   At age 97, she was unable to leave her nursing home to receive the honor, but she sent a statement through Elżbieta Ficowska, whom Sendler had helped to save as an infant. 

2009 Polish commemorative coin
Polish President Lech Kaczyński stated she "can justly be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize" (though nominations are supposed to be kept secret).  She was nominated for (but did not win) the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.  

On 11 April 2007, she received the Order of the Smile as the oldest recipient of the award.

She appears on a silver 2009 Polish commemorative coin honoring some of the Holocaust-resisters of Poland. 

In May 2009, Irena Sendler was posthumously granted the Audrey Hepburn Humanitarian Award.  The award, named in honor of the late actress and UNICEF ambassador, is presented to persons and organizations recognised for helping children.   In its citation, the Audrey Hepburn Foundation recalled Irena Sendler's heroic efforts that saved 2,500 Jewish children during the German occupation of Poland in World War II.
Mariusz Kubik photo of Irene Sendler with some poeple she saved as children

Sendler was the last survivor of the Children's Section of the Żegota Council to Assist Jews, which she had headed from August 1943 until the end of the war.

Irene Sendler age 97
Irena Sendler died in Warsaw on May 12, 2008.

See more information about this astonishing woman at this site as well…
Videos about Irena Sendler and her courageous efforts can be seen on YOUTUBE at