Skip to content

Story of Irena Sendler and children from Warsaw ghetto

May 15, 2015

In the year 2007, when Al Gore won the Nobel peace prize, one another person who was nominated for the same was this 97 year old woman Irena Sendler who had risked her life to save lives of thousands of children during the Nazi regime.

Irena Sendler has a beautiful story worth knowing.

She was born in 1910 in Otwock, a town some 15 miles southeast of Warsaw. Irena was greatly influenced by her father who was one of the first Polish Socialists and a doctor. She was 7 years old when her father died of the disease he had contracted while treating his patients.

Irena went to Warsaw University. There in college she opposed the ghetto-bench system that existed at some prewar Polish universities and defaced her grade card. As a result of her public protest she was suspended from the University of Warsaw for three years.

In 1939, Germany invaded Poland, and the brutality of the Nazis accelerated with murder, violence and terror. Irena began helping Jews by offering them food and shelter. In 1942, the Nazis herded hundreds of thousands of Jews into the Warsaw Ghetto. The Ghetto was sealed and the Jewish families ended up behind its walls, only to await certain death. Irena Sendler joined Zegota, organized by the Polish underground resistance movement, as one of its first recruits and directed the efforts to rescue the children who were suffering in the ghettos.

Irena Sendler

She wanted to rescue the children from inside the camps. To be able to enter the Ghetto legally, Irena managed to be issued a pass from Warsaws Epidemic Control Department. She visited the Ghetto daily, reestablished contacts and brought food, medicines and clothing. 5,000 people were dying a month from starvation and disease in the Ghetto.

Irena began smuggling children out in an ambulance. She would spend time convincing the parents to let go of their children and then find ways to get them out. She used the old courthouse on the edge of the Warsaw Ghetto (still standing) as one of the main routes of smuggling children out. With help from others, she issued hundreds of false documents with forged signatures. Irena Sendler successfully smuggled thousands of children to safety and gave them temporary new identities. Some children were taken out in gunnysacks or body bags. Some were buried inside loads of goods. Some were taken out using the sewer pipes or other secret underground passages. A mechanic took a baby out in his toolbox. Some kids were carried out in potato sacks, others were placed in coffins, some entered a church in the Ghetto which had two entrances. One entrance opened into the Ghetto, the other opened into the Aryan side of Warsaw.

‘Can you guarantee they will live?’ Irena later recalled the distraught parents asking. But she could only guarantee they would die if they stayed. “In my dreams,” she said, “I still hear the cries when they left their parents.”

Finding families willing to shelter the children, and thereby willing to risk their life if the Nazis ever found out, was also not easy. “I sent most of the children to religious establishments,” she recalled. “I knew I could count on the Sisters.” “No one ever refused to take a child from me,” she said. The children were given false identities and placed in homes, orphanages and convents. Irena Sendler carefully noted, in coded form, the children’s original names and their new identities. She kept the only record of their true identities in jars buried beneath an apple tree in a neighbor’s back yard, across the street from German barracks, hoping she could someday dig up the jars, locate the children and inform them of their past. In all, the jars contained the names of 2,500 children.

But the Nazis became aware of Irena’s activities, and on October 20, 1943 she was arrested, imprisoned and tortured by the Gestapo. She ended up in the Pawiak Prison. During the questioning she had her legs and feet fractured. However she did not relent. She received a death sentence. She was to be shot. Unknown to her, someone had bribed the German executioner who helped her escape. During the remaining years of the war, she lived hidden, just like the children she rescued. Irena was the only one who knew where the children were to be found.

After the war she dug up the jars and used the notes to track down the 2,500 children she placed with adoptive families and to reunite them with relatives scattered across Europe. But most lost their families during the Holocaust in Nazi death camps. Almost all the parents of the children Irena saved, died at the Treblinka death camp. The children had known her only by her code name Jolanta. But years later, after she was honored for her wartime work, her picture appeared in a newspaper. “A man, a painter, telephoned me,” said Sendler, “`I remember your face,’ he said. `It was you who took me out of the ghetto.’ I had many calls like that!”

11/04/2007 Warszawa. Zakon Bonifratów ul. Sapie˝yƒska 3. Przyznanie Janinie Sendlerowej Orderu UÊmiechu. Nz. Po tradyyjnym wypiciu soku z cytryny. Fot. Robert Gardziƒski/Fotorzepa

In 2007, Irena Sendler was nominated to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. She was nominated for having risked her own life and rescuing thousands of the most defenseless victims of the Nazi ideology. However the prize went to Al Gore, who had created a wonderful slide show on Global warming.

I don’t think it perturbed her that she did not win the award, or she even cared about it. She didn’t like herself to be called a hero. She said she did the most ordinary thing, a thing that makes her human and not a hero. She claimed no credit for her actions. “I could have done more,” she said. “This regret will follow me to my death.”

She died in 2008 at the age of 98.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: