A heroic nurse helped to save the lives of 2,500 Jewish children during World War-II by hiding them in boxes, packages and even coffins. After WWII she was imprisoned in communist Poland — it was only later in her life that she was fully recognized for her incredible work. A documentary on her story of courage has gone viral.
Irena Sendler was born on 15 February, 1910 in Warsaw to Dr. Stanisław Krzyżanowski, a physician, and his wife, Janina. Her father died from typhus, when she was still young, that he contracted while he was treating patients. Irena decided to dedicate her life to help others — to honor her father’s selfless work.
Sendler had just moved to Warsaw before the outbreak of World War II, and worked for the Social Welfare department. She began aiding Jews soon after the German invasion in 1939, by leading a group of co-workers to create more than 3,000 false documents to help Jewish families escape.
This work was done at a huge risk — from as early as October 1941, giving any kind of assistance to Jews in German-occupied Poland was punishable by death. Any house found to be hiding Jews meant that the whole family would be executed. Poland was the only country in German-occupied Europe in which such a death penalty was applied.
In August 1943, Sendler was nominated by Żegota, an underground organization also known as the Council to Aid Jews, to head its Jewish children’s section. As an employee of the Social Welfare Department, she had a special permit to enter the Warsaw Ghetto to check for signs of typhus, a disease Germans feared would spread beyond the Ghetto.
During these visits, under the pretext of inspecting sanitary conditions, Sendler and her co-workers smuggled out babies and small children. Sometimes they would hide them in ambulances and trams, sometimes in packages and suitcases. In total they saved 2,500 Jewish children.
About 400 of the children were directly smuggled out by Sendler herself. The children who were saved were placed with Polish Christian families, and some in orphanages. They were given fake Christian names and taught Christian prayers in case they were ever tested by police. However, to prevent the children from losing their Jewish identities, she kept secret documentation listing the children’s fake Christian names, their given names, and their current location.
She and her co-workers then buried the lists of the hidden children in jars. Their aim was to return the children to their original families when the war was over.
In 1943, Sendler was arrested by the Gestapo and severely tortured. As they ransacked her house, Sendler tossed the lists of children to her friend. Should the Gestapo access this information, all of those children’s safety would be compromised. Thankfully, her friend was never searched. The Gestapo beat Sendler brutally upon her arrest, fracturing her feet and legs in the process. Despite this, she refused to betray any of her colleagues or the children they rescued. She was sentenced to death by a firing squad.
Żegota saved her life by bribing the guards on the way to her execution. After her escape, she hid from the Germans, but returned to Warsaw under a fake name and continued her involvement with Żegota.
After the war, she and her co-workers gathered all of the children’s records with the names and locations of the hidden Jewish children to find the children’s families. Tragically, almost all of the children’s parents had been killed at the Treblinka extermination camp or had gone missing.
“Every child saved with my help is the justification of my existence on this Earth, and not a title to glory,” Irena Sendler said of her work saving the children.
She once said, “[My] hatred for the German occupiers was stronger than my fear…My father taught me to reach out to a drowning man, even if you can’t swim. It was Poland who was drowning.”
After the war, Sendler was imprisoned from 1948 to 1949 and interrogated by the communist secret police due to her connections with Poland’s principal resistance organization, the Home Army.
Sendler was eventually recognized for her work and listed among the Polish Righteous among the Nations in Israel — however Poland’s communist government did not allow her to travel abroad to receive the award. Only until the fall of communism in Poland was she fully recognized for her incredible work — among her awards was the Order of the White Eagle in 2003.
When she was 98 years old, Sendler finally had the chance to meet some of the children that she had once helped save. These “children” had now grown up, with beautiful families of their own.
Shortly after this wonderful meeting and almost a 100 years old, Irena passed away. She must have felt satisfied with the fruits of her labor, and felt it was time to move on. Still, Irena Sendler will remain a hero forever, and will be remembered for the dedication she had to saving thousands of imprisoned children — many of whom were able to thank her before she passed away.
A documentary was made in recognition of Irena Sendler’s heroic actions during WWII: