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Sendler, Irena

Abstract and Keywords

Irena Sendler (1910–2008) was a Polish social worker who saved almost 2,500 children between 1942 and 1943, by smuggling them out of the Warsaw ghetto, and finding non-Jewish families to adopt them.

Keywords: Holocaust, Nazis, Warsaw Ghetto, Life in a Jar, Poland

Irena Sendler (1910–2008) was born in Otwock, a town about 15 miles southwest of Warsaw. She was greatly influenced by her father, a physician whose patients were mostly low-income Jews, and who died of typhoid fever when Irena was seven. In 1939, when Germany invaded Poland, Irena was a Senior Administrator in the Warsaw Social Welfare Department, which operated “canteens” in every district of Warsaw. Originally, the canteens provided meals, financial aid, and other services for low-income individuals, including orphans and widows. Irena expanded the services of the canteens to include providing clothing, medicine, and money for Jews living in Warsaw.

In 1942, the Nazis herded hundreds of thousands of Jewish people into a 16-block area that came to be known as the Warsaw Ghetto. The Jews were not allowed to leave the Ghetto, and only the Germans and certain Polish officials were allowed to enter. Living conditions in the Ghetto deteriorated rapidly. Sendler was so outraged by their living conditions that she joined Zegota, the Council for Aid to the Jews, organized by the Polish underground.

To be able to enter the Ghetto legally, Irena managed to get a pass from Warsaw’s Epidemic Control Department. She visited people in the Ghetto daily, bringing food, medicine, and clothing. But 5,000 people were dying every month from starvation and disease. So Sendler hatched a plan to help the Jewish children to leave the Ghetto. First, she had to persuade parents to part with their children, promising to reunite them after the war. She helped the parents to realize that if the children did not leave the Ghetto, then most of them would die.

She recruited at least one person from each of the 10 centers of the Warsaw Social Welfare Department. These social workers issued hundreds of false documents with forged signatures. Then Sendler and her associates began smuggling the children out of the Ghetto.

Some children were buried inside loads that workers were taking out of the Ghetto. Some children were carried out in potato sacks or body bags. A mechanic took a baby out in his toolbox. There was a church in Warsaw that had two entrances: one entrance opened to the Ghetto, and the other opened to the Aryan side of the city. Some children were dressed up to look like non-Jewish, Polish children; the children then simply walked into this church from the Ghetto side, and walked out the other side, holding the hand of Sendler or another social worker.

The children were given false identities and placed in foster homes, orphanages, and convents. Sendler wrote all the children’s original names and their new identities, along with the names of their Jewish parents, on pieces of paper. She then put the slips of paper into jars, and buried them beneath a tree in a neighbor’s back yard. Her plan was to someday dig up the jars, locate the children, and reunite them with their parents and/or other family members. The jars contained the names of 2,500 children.

The Nazis found out about Irena Sendler’s activities, and on October 20, 1943, she was arrested and imprisoned. The Gestapo broke her feet and legs in an effort to force her to give them information. But Sendler refused to betray either the people working with her, or any of the Jewish children that had been smuggled out of the Ghetto.

At one point, Sendler was sentenced to execution. But at the last minute, one of the German officers helped her escape, having been bribed by Zegota members to save Sendler. Thus, she escaped from being killed, but had to spend the rest of the war in hiding.

After the war, she dug up the jars and tracked down the 2,500 children to reunite them with their families. But almost all of the families had died in Nazi death camps. When the Communist regime took over Poland after the war, they interrogated and persecuted Sendler for her involvement with Zegota. Their interrogation of her was so intense that, as a result, Sendler lost her unborn child. She was again sentenced to death, but was saved by a Jewish woman. It was only after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 that people could talk openly about Sendler’s story. But even then, the story remained in relative obscurity.

In 1999, at a high school in Uniontown, Kansas, Norm Conard, a teacher, encouraged three students to work on a year-long National History Day project. Two ninth-grade girls, Megan Stewart and Elizabeth Cambers, and an eleventh-grade girl, Sabrina Coons, accepted the challenge. Eventually a number of other male and female students were added to the project. As a result of their research, the students learned of the heroic activity of Irena Sendler and wrote a play, Life in a Jar, about her work in rescuing the Jewish children. The students entered their play into the statewide National History Day competition, and won the first-place award. By November 2008, they had presented their play 305 times in North America and in Europe. And by 2013, the play had been popularized by over 1,500 media outlets, including National Public Radio, C-SPAN, and CBS. Thus, these high school students were responsible for bringing Irena Sendler’s story out of obscurity and to a national, and even international, audience.

In 2003, Irena Sendler was awarded Poland’s highest distinction, the Order of White Eagle. The International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW) recognized her with its Most Distinguished Social Worker award in 2006; and in 2007, IFSW nominated her for a Nobel Peace Prize. Sendler died in 2008 in Poland.