We are all familiar with Oskar Schindler, who was made famous by the 1993 Steven Spielberg movie Schindler’s List starring Liam Neeson. But, I would posit that few of you have heard of Irena Sendler. Sendler was a Polish woman whose feats arguably exceeded those of Schindler. Read on, and be astounded.
Irena Krzyzanowska was born on February 15, 1910 in Warsaw into a middle class family. Her father was a physician, who, unfortunately, died from typhus that he contracted while treating patients. Sendler always credited her parents for imbuing in her a desire to help those less fortunate. From an early age she exhibited an activist bent that she maintained her entire life. For example, she was expelled from the University of Warsaw for repeated public protesting.
She married and divorced three times, twice to the same man, Mieczyslaw Sendler. She had three children.
During WWII Sendler joined a Polish resistance group called Zegota. Through Zegota, she obtained a job working for the Department of Social Welfare in Warsaw, a job that afforded her the opportunity to assist Jews. As most of us know, the Nazis were extremely motivated to exterminate Jews and devoted much of their resources to that objective, even to the detriment of their overall war effort. Accordingly, anyone caught aiding and abetting Jews was subject to death. This penalty extended to their family and household members as well. Although these penalties were in effect in all Nazi-occupied territories, they were applied most vigorously in Poland. Obviously, these extreme measures failed to deter many Good Samaritans, including Sendler.
Basically, Sendler and her group operated in the following manner:
- Her job afforded her access to the Jews in the ghetto under the guise of inspecting the sanitary conditions and other pretexts. Disease and starvation were rampant in the ghetto and presented a serious health hazard not only within the ghetto, itself (which would have hardly bothered the Nazis), but to the rest of the city as well.
- She managed to secure an official pass to enter the ghetto from the city’s Contagious Diseases Department. This unfettered access enabled her and her cohorts to smuggle out babies and small children. They would hide them in various ingenious ways – in ambulances, coffins (under dead bodies), small packages, sewer pipes, suitcases, and even in toolboxes..
- The children were placed in orphanages, Catholic convents or with friendly Polish families.
- The group kept detailed records, because their hope was to unite the children with their families after the War. They maintained lists of the children in glass jars, which were buried in secret locations. Unfortunately, however, in most cases they were unable to re-unite the children with their parents, because so few of the parents survived the War.
According to the eminent Deborah Dwork, Rose Professor of Holocaust History and Founding Director of the Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Clark University in Worcester, MA., Sendler was the “inspiration” and “prime mover” of a network that saved some 2,500 Jewish children, roughly double the number of Jews saved by Schindler. Furthermore, Sendler smuggled out some 400 by herself.
Inevitably, Sendler was caught. Even though the Gestapo beat and tortured her she refused to divulge any information. She was sentenced to be executed, but members of Zegota rescued her at the last minute. She continued to be an active member of the resistance for the remainder of the War.
After the War she continued her resistance efforts as a member of the Home Army (AK), an anti-communist group. In 1948 she was arrested by the communists for anti-government activities. After one year, she was released. For the rest of her life she remained active in various activist and social ventures in Poland.
She died in 2008 in Warsaw at the age of 98.
We now know that Sendler was one of the most heroic figures in WWII with respect to saving Jews. Unfortunately, for many years her extreme heroism had gone largely unrecorded and unrecognized. One reason may have been the antipathy of the post-war Polish government towards her due to her continued ties to the anti-communist resistance following WWII.
Another may have been her modesty. When asked why she did what she did, she simply stated “I was brought up to believe that a person must be rescued …. regardless of religion and nationality.” She also stated that the hardest part of her operation was persuading the parents to let go. Often, they would beseech her: “Can you guarantee they will live?” Her response: “No, but if they stay here [with the parents] I guarantee that they will die.”
There are many touching stories of Sendler babies who survived the war and have gone on to lead productive lives and raise families of their own. One such baby was Elzbieta Ficowska. She was only a few months old when she was secreted out of the ghetto in a workman’s toolbox. She survived the war and is still alive today. Her only momento of her real mother is a tiny silver spoon with her name and birthdate inscribed on it, which her biological mother had give to Irena. She claims she had three mothers – her biological one, the one who raised her, and Irena.
Eventually, word of Irena’s exploits spread.
1. In 1965 Yad Vashem designated her as one of the Polish Righteous among the Nations.
2. In 1991 Israel made her an honorary citizen.
3. In 1999 some school students wrote and produced a play based on her exploits called Life in a Jar. The play was shown on tv with Anna Paquin portraying Irena.
4. In 2003 Pope John Paul II sent her a letter of praise.
5. She has won various awards, such the Order of the Smile, Humanitarian of the Year and the Audrey Hepburn Humanitarian Award. In addition, she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three years running, 2006-2008.
6. In addition to the above mentioned play she has had documentaries and a book written about her life.
Irena was fond of saying “the world can be better if there’s love, tolerance and humility.” No doubt, she possessed all three in abundance.