“Promise me my child will live!” the mother cries desperately after her. She turns for a moment.”I can’t promise that. But I can promise that if he stays with you, he will die.”
Irena Sendler was born in 1910 in Warsaw. Her father, a physician and one of the first Polish
Socialists, raised her to respect and love people regardless of their
ethnicity or social status. His dying words to seven-year-old Irena
were, “If you see someone drowning, you must jump in and try to
save them, even if you don’t know how to swim.”
In fall of 1939, Germany invaded Poland and began its campaign of
mass destruction. Mrs. Sendler was a senior administrator in the Warsaw Social Welfare
Department. From 19391942, she was involved in acquiring forged documents, registering
many Jews under Christian names so they could receive these services; she listed them all as
typhus and tuberculosis victims, to avoid any investigations.
It wasn’t enough. Irena joined the Zegota, the Council for Aid to Jews, organized by the
Polish underground resistance. Obtaining a pass from the Warsaw Epidemic Control
Department to enter the Warsaw Ghetto, she smuggled in food, medicine, and clothing.
Irena decided that the most that could be done was to try to save the children. In 1942,
Mrs. Sendler, nick name “Jolanta,” was put in charge of the Children’s Division of Zegota.
She and her team of twenty-five organized to smuggle out as many children as possible from
the Ghetto. Ten members were to smuggle children out, ten were in charge of finding families
to take the children, and five were in charge of obtaining false documents.
Small children were sedated to keep them from crying, then hidden inside sacks, boxes, body
bags, or coffins. Older children who could pretend to be ill were taken out in ambulances.
Many were smuggled through sewers or underground tunnels, or taken through an old
courthouse or church next to the Ghetto.
Outside the Ghetto walls, the children were given false names and documents. Mrs. Sendler
claims that no one ever refused to take a child from her
Mrs. Sendler, smuggled 2,500 children out of the Warsaw Ghetto during the last three
months before its liquidation. She found a home for each child. Each was given a new name
and a new identity as a Christian. She stresses that the goal was not to convert people to
Catholicism, but rather to save lives. Each family had to promise to return the children to any
surviving family members after the war. Mrs. Sendler spent years after the war, with the help
of her lists, trying to track down missing children and reconnect family members.
For two years, Jolanta’s covert operations were successful. Then, in October 20, 1943, the
Gestapo caught up with her. She was arrested, imprisoned in Warsaw’s notorious Pawiak
prison, and tortured. Her feet and legs were broken. She refused to betray any of her co-
conspirators or to reveal the whereabouts of any of the children.
Jolanta was sentenced to death by firing squad, a sentence that she accepted with pride. But
unbeknown to her, Zegota had bribed one of the German guards, who helped her to escape
at the last moment. He recorded her name on the list of those who had been executed. On the
following day, the Germans loudly proclaimed the news of her death. She saw posters all over
the city reporting it. Irena spent the rest of the war in hiding much like the children she had
Irena Sendler was awarded the Order of White Eagle, Poland’s highest distinction, in Warsaw,
in 2003. This year, she was nominated to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. At a special session
in Poland’s upper house of Parliament, President Lech Kaczynski announced the unanimous
resolution to honor Mrs. Sendler for rescuing “the most defenseless victims of the Nazi
ideology: the Jewish children.” He referred to her as a “great heroine who can be justly named
for the Nobel Peace Prize. She deserves great respect from our whole nation.”
Today’s Warsaw still bears testimony to Mrs. Sendler’s lifesaving work. The corner store
where children were hidden in the basement and the apple tree where the names of the
children where buried still stand, all within sight of the German army barracks.
Although the children had known her only as Jolanta, as her story became publicized, she
began to receive calls from people who recognized her face from the photos: “I remember
your face! You took me out of the Ghetto!”
Irena Sendler died on May 12, 2008. In April 2009 her story was aired in a television
film, “The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler.”