Irena Sendler (née Krzyżanowska), also cited to as Irena Sendlerowa in Poland, nom de guerre “Jolanta” (15 February 1910 – 12 May 2008), was a Polish nurse and social worker who worked in the Polish Underground in German-occupied Warsaw throughout World War II, and was leader of the children’s division of Żegota, the Polish Council to Aid Jews (Polish: Rada Pomocy Żydom), which was operating from 1942 to 1945.
Helped by some two dozen other Żegota members, Sendler smuggled about 2,500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto and then gave them fake identification papers and security outside the Ghetto, saving those children from the Holocaust. With the exclusion of diplomats who issued visas to assist Jews to escape Nazi-occupied Europe, Sendler rescued more Jews than any other person throughout the Holocaust.
The German occupiers ultimately uncovered her movements and she was captured by the Gestapo, beaten, and condemned to death, however, she managed to escape execution and survived the war. In 1965, Sendler was acknowledged by the State of Israel as Righteous among the Nations. Late in life, she was given the Order of the White Eagle, Poland’s greatest honour, for her wartime humanitarian efforts.
Irena Sendler was born as Irena Krzyżanowska on 15 February 1910 in Warsaw to Dr Stanisław Krzyżanowski, a physician, and his wife, Janina. She grew up in Otwock, a town approximately 15 miles south-east of Warsaw, where there was a lively Jewish neighbourhood.
Her father perished in February 1917 from typhus incurred whilst attending patients. Following his passing, Jewish neighbourhood leaders endeavoured to support her mother to pay for Sendler’s education, although her mother refused their help. Sendler studied Polish literature at Warsaw University and entered the Polish Socialist Party. She fought the ghetto-bench system that lived at some pre-war Polish universities and mutilated her grade card. As a consequence of this public demonstration, she was barred from the University of Warsaw for three years.
She married Mieczysław Sendler in 1931, but, they divorced in 1947. She then married Stefan Zgrzembski, a Jewish friend from her university days, by who she had three children, Janina, Andrzej, who perished in infancy, and Adam, who died of heart failure in 1999. In 1959 she divorced Zgrzembski and remarried her first husband, Mieczysław Sendler; but, they ultimately divorced again.
Sendler travelled to Warsaw preceding to the explosion of World War II and worked for the cities Social Welfare departments. She started helping Jews shortly following the German attack in 1939, by leading a gathering of co-workers who produced more than 3,000 fake documents to assist Jewish families. This work was executed at enormous peril, as, after October 1941, giving any sort of aid to Jews in German-occupied Poland was punishable by death, not just for the person who was giving the help but also for their whole family or home. Poland was the only nation in German-occupied Europe in which such a death sentence was implemented.
In August 1943, Sendler, by then identified by her nom de guerre Jolanta, was chosen by Żegota, the secret organisation further identified as the Council to Aid Jews, to head its Jewish children’s division. As an assistant of the Social Welfare Department, she had a special permit to access the Warsaw Ghetto to examine for symptoms of typhus, a condition the Germans feared would expand beyond the Ghetto. Throughout these visits, she bore a Star of David as a symbol of solidarity with the Jewish people. Under the guise of conducting examinations of hygienic conditions inside the Ghetto, Sendler and her co-workers smuggled out infants and tiny children, sometimes in ambulances and trams, sometimes hiding them in bags and cases, and using many other means.
Jewish children were put with Polish families, the Warsaw orphanage of the Sisters of the Family of Mary, or Roman Catholic nunneries such as the Little Sister Servants of the Blessed Virgin Mary Conceived Immaculate. Sendler served closely with a gathering of around 30 enlistees, principally women, who comprised Zofia Kossak-Szczucka, a resistance fighter and writer, and Matylda Getter, Mother Provincial of the Franciscan Sisters of the Family of Mary.
According to American historian Debórah Dwork, Sendler was the inspiration and the prime mover for the whole network that saved those 2,500 Jewish children. Nearly 400 of the children were directly smuggled out by Sendler herself. She and her co-workers buried lists of the hidden children in containers in order to keep a record of their original and new identities. The plan was to return the children to their original families when the conflict was over.
In 1943 Sendler was captured by the Gestapo and rigorously tortured. The Gestapo beat her mercilessly, breaking her feet and legs in the process. Despite this, she refused to reveal any of her comrades or the children they saved and was condemned to death by firing squad. Żegota spared her life by bribing the guards on the way to her martyrdom. Following her escape, she disappeared from the Germans, however, returned to Warsaw under a false name and resumed her association with the Żegota. Throughout the Warsaw Uprising, she served as a nurse in a state hospital, where she hid five Jews. She continued to serve as a nurse until the Germans left Warsaw, fleeing before the advancing Soviet troops.
Following the war, she and her co-workers collected all of the children’s records with the names and places of the hidden Jewish children and gave them to their Żegota co-worker Adolf Berman and his team at the Central Committee of Polish Jews. Nevertheless, most all of the children’s parents had been murdered at the Treblinka extermination camp or had gone missing.
Following the war, Sendler was incarcerated from 1948 to 1949 and ruthlessly cross-examined by the communist secret police, Urząd Bezpieczeństwa, owing to her associations with Poland’s principal resistance organisation, the Home Army, which was true to the wartime Polish government in exile.
As a consequence, she gave birth early to her son, Andrzej, who did not survive. Although she was finally released and agreed to join the communist party, her links to the AK indicated that she was never made into a hero. In fact, in 1965 when Sendler was acknowledged by Yad Vashem as one of the Polish Righteous amongst the Nations, Poland’s communist government did not permit her to travel overseas at that time to accept the award in Israel, she was able to do so only in 1983. She was later hired as a teacher and vice-director in many Warsaw medical schools and served for the Ministries of Education and Health. She was further active in many social work programs. She helped establish a number of orphanages and care centres for children, families and the elderly, as well as a centre for prostitutes in Henryków. Nevertheless, she was pressured into early retirement for her public protestations of support for Israel in the 1967 Israeli-Arab War, countries of the Soviet-controlled Eastern Bloc, comprising Poland, broke off diplomatic relationships with Israel in the aftereffect of this conflict. Sendler abdicated her PZPR association following the events of March 1968 in Poland.
She was later hired as a teacher and vice-director in many Warsaw medical schools and served for the Ministries of Education and Health. She was further active in many social work programs. She helped establish a number of orphanages and care centres for children, families and the elderly, as well as a centre for prostitutes in Henryków. Nevertheless, she was pressured into early retirement for her public protestations of support for Israel in the 1967 Israeli-Arab War, countries of the Soviet-controlled Eastern Bloc, comprising Poland, broke off diplomatic relationships with Israel in the aftereffect of this conflict. Sendler abdicated her PZPR association following the events of March 1968 in Poland.
Nevertheless, she was pressured into early retirement for her public protestations of support for Israel in the 1967 Israeli-Arab War, countries of the Soviet-controlled Eastern Bloc, comprising Poland, broke off diplomatic relationships with Israel in the aftereffect of this conflict. Sendler abdicated her PZPR association following the events of March 1968 in Poland.
In 1980 she entered the Solidarity movement.
Irena Sendler remained in Warsaw for the rest of her life. She died on 12 May 2008, aged 98, and is buried in Warsaw’s Powązki Cemetery.
In 1965 Sendler was acknowledged by Yad Vashem as one of the Polish Righteous among the Nations, and a tree was planted in her honour at the gateway to the Avenue of the Righteous. Nevertheless, there was no additional public acknowledgement of her wartime resistance and humanitarian accomplishments until after the end of communist control in Poland.
In 1991 Sendler was selected as an honorary citizen of Israel. On 12 June 1996, she was given the Commander’s Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta. She got a higher variant of this award, the Commander’s Cross with Star, on 7 November 2001.
Nonetheless, Irena Sendler’s accomplishments remained mostly hidden to the world until 1999, when pupils at a high school in Uniontown, Kansas, along with their teacher Norman Conard, produced a play based on their investigation into her life story, which they called Life in a Jar. It was a remarkable accomplishment, staging above 200 times in the United States and overseas, and significantly contributed to publicising Sendler’s story globally.
On March 2002, B’nai Jehudah Temple of Kansas City presented Sendler, Conard and the pupils who created the performance with its yearly award for contributions made to saving the world, the Tikkun Olam Award. The performance was modified for television as The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler, 2009, directed by John Kent Harrison, in which Sendler was characterised by actor Anna Paquin.
In 2003, Pope John Paul II sent Sendler a private message praising her wartime efforts. On 10 November 2003 she received the Order of the White Eagle, Poland’s greatest civilian medal, and the Polish-American award, the Jan Karski Award For Courage and Heart, given by the American Center for Polish Culture in Washington, D.C.
In the years 2006, 2007, and 2008 she was chosen for the Nobel Peace Prize. On 14 March 2007, Sendler was honoured by the Polish Senate, and a year later, on 30 July, by the American Congress. On 11 April 2007, she got the Order of the Smile, at that time she was the oldest receiver of the award. In 2007 she became an honorary citizen of the cities of Warsaw and Tarczyn.
On the occasion of the Order of the Smile award, she stated that the award from children is amongst her favourite ones, along with the Righteous among the Nations award and the letter from the Pope.
In April 2009 she was posthumously awarded the Humanitarian of the Year award from The Sister Rose Thering Endowment, and in May 2009, Sendler was posthumously awarded the Audrey Hepburn Humanitarian Award.
Around this time American filmmaker Mary Skinner filmed a documentary, Irena Sendler, in the Name of Their Mothers, Polish: Dzieci Ireny Sendlerowej, highlighting the latest interviews Sendler gave before her passing. The film made its national U.S. broadcast debut through KQED Presents on PBS in May 2011 in honour of Holocaust Remembrance Day and went on to win numerous honours, comprising the 2012 Gracie Award for best public television documentaries.
In 2013 the walkway in front of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw was named after Irena Sendler.
In 2010 a memorial plaque acknowledging Sendler was affixed to the wall of 2 Pawińskiego Street in Warsaw, a building in which she worked from 1932 to 1935. In 2015 she was acknowledged with another memorial plaque at 6 Ludwiki Street, where she lived from the 1930s to 1943.
Her kindness to assist others knew no bounds. She had this craving and hunger that illuminated everyone around her, and anything that befell her, she would not be broken, and she was ready for anything, and she had shaped her life for the dangerous and perilous times ahead of her.
These helpless children simply wouldn’t have survived without Irena Sendler, and her capture and imprisonment mean that she gave these children their freedom, otherwise they would have been helpless against the Nazi’s.
Her need to protect these children should be a lesson for those who want to try and dominate us again. The fact is, that we will not be defeated, whatever happens, to us in the tomorrow there will always be somebody like Irena Sendler to save the day.