Irena Sendler, the woman who helped save 2,500 children from the Holocaust

Irena Sendler

“I give my child in your care, raise my child as if it were yours.”

These words were written by the mother of a six year old Jewish girl Rami, who was smuggled out of the Jewish ghetto in Nazi occupied Warsaw, Poland, during the Second World War. Little Rami was placed into foster care with her mother’s Polish friends on the Aryan side of the city and, unlike her mother, ultimately survived the war. The person who was instrumental in making Rami’s survival possible was a woman named Irena Sendler, a social worker and Polish resistance operative who helped save 2,500 Jewish children like Rami during the Holocaust.

Beginnings

Irena was born in 1910 in Warsaw into a Roman Catholic family. Her father, Stanislaw Krzyzanowski was a physician and a researcher in infectious diseases. He was a humanitarian and an idealist, who helped found the Polish Socialist Party. He believed in democracy, equal rights, universal health care, and an end to child labor, and was even expelled from university in Poland for leading strikes and protests advocating for those goals.

When Irena was two, the family moved outside of Warsaw, to the village of Otwock, where Stanislaw set up his practice for the treatment of tuberculosis. The village was fifty percent Jewish, and that percentage included the poorest of residents. Unlike other doctors in the area, Stanislaw treated everyone, the rich and poor alike, despite the poor not being able to pay. “If someone else is drowning, you have to give a hand,” he would often say.

Irena grew up in close contact with the Jewish villagers. She played with their children, and by age six even spoke fluent Yiddish. At home Irena’s family life was warm and nurturing. Stanislaw loved his little girl very much and hugged and kissed her so often that Irena’s aunts would warn him not to spoil her. “We don’t know what her life will be like,” he’d reply. “Maybe my hugs will be her best memory.”

In 1916 an epidemic of typhoid fever swept through the village and Stanislaw chose to be on the front lines. Typhoid, a bacterial disease spread through food, water, and close contact with infected persons, was especially prevalent in poor communities with bad sanitation. Unlike other well off villagers who isolated themselves to avoid contact with the sick, Stanislaw continued caring for patients and later that year succumbed to the disease himself. He died shortly after.

But Stanislaw’s spirit lived on in his daughter, and as Irena matured she resembled her father more and more in her beliefs and actions. She majored in social welfare at the University of Warsaw, and interned in charitable welfare clinics where the poor could get a free education and legal assistance.She also started becoming more politically involved, joining the Polish Socialist Party that her father helped start and beginning to engage in protests and activism herself.

In 1935 anti-Semitic sentiment was on the rise in Poland, and at Polish universities an informal rule nicknamed the “bench ghetto” was introduced. “A rule was established at the University segregating the Catholics from the Jewish students,” Irena recalled. “The Catholics were to sit on the chairs to the right and Jews on the chairs to the left. I always sat with Jews and, therefore, I was beaten by anti-Semites together with Jewish students.”

Later, like her father, Irena was suspended from university for boycotting the labeling of campus identity cards with the word “Aryan” to differentiate non-Jewish students from Jewish ones. “I was taught since my earliest years that people are either good or bad. Their race, nationality, and religion do not matter — what matters is the person.

The War

On September 1, 1939, after the signing of a non-aggression pact between themselves, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union invaded Poland. The country was split in half, with the eastern side going to Soviet Union and the western to the Nazis. Warsaw fell to the Nazis.

Overnight Jews became second class citizens in Warsaw. They couldn’t hold state or government positions, couldn’t own businesses, they had to register ownership of property, and lost access to their bank accounts.

Barred from offering social services to the Jewish population officially, Irena with a few friends began to circumvent the rules by faking paperwork in order to do so. This was the beginning of Irena’s resistance operations. Soon Irena and her resistance cell were providing money, food, and clothing to thousands of Jews in Warsaw.

A year after the invasion, moving forward with their ultimate goal of Jewish genocide, the Nazis established a ghetto for Warsaw’s Jews. 350,000 Jews, nearly 30% of the city’s entire population, were imprisoned in a 1.3 square mile ghetto. The ghetto was surrounded by a ten foot tall brick wall crowned with ribbons of barbed wire.

Irena sprang into action looking for blank documents that could give Aryan identities to Jewish friends destined for the ghetto. And once the ghettoization of Jews was complete, she continued helping in any way she could.

Life in the ghetto was miserable. The Nazis rationed roughly 200 calories of food per person per day. Death by starvation was common. Sanitation was terrible with refuse and human corpses littering the streets. There was a shortage of soap, clothing, and the means to heat living spaces. Many people froze to death. Disease was everywhere, including tuberculosis, dysentery, spotted fever, and typhoid fever, the same disease that claimed Irena’s father’s life.

But Irena was undaunted. Because of her work with Warsaw’s Department of Health and Social Services, she received a pass from the Epidemic Control Department that allowed her official passage in and out of the ghetto. She immediately began making daily visits, sometimes multiple per day, to smuggle food, money, and doses of typhus vaccine into the ghetto. She would hide items in the false bottom of her bag, or in small pockets sewn into a padded bra. Many women had their bras altered with padding and pockets. “It was a joke in wartime Warsaw that women’s breasts had grown dramatically everywhere in the city since the arrival of the Germans.

Children

Sometimes Irena would smuggle candy or dolls for the ghetto’s children. Children were particularly vulnerable in the ghetto, succumbing faster to malnutrition, freezing, and to more varied diseases than adults. Some families facing starvation relied on their children to obtain food by smuggling it from the Aryan side of the city. Other families sent children across the wall hoping they would fare better as orphans on the Aryan side than inside the ghetto. In the beginning of 1942, about 4,000 children lived on the streets of the Aryan side. 2,000 of them were Jewish.

That year, fearing Nazi soldiers’ contamination with typhus and other diseases from children living on the street, the chief of the Nazi police ordered for Warsaw’s social services to get all homeless children on the Aryan side of the city off the streets and into orphanages and other local institutions.The roundups yielded a number of Jewish children, many of whom Irena and her network helped disappear into private homes and orphanages under false Polish identities. But there were thirty two Jewish kids that could not be placed, and so, in order to save them from execution, Irena had to smuggle them back into the ghetto. Knowing what was awaiting them there, Irena was devastated at not having an alternative solution. She vowed to never again return a single child to the ghetto, and started, along with her associates, an operation to smuggle Jewish children out of the ghetto and to provide them with false Polish identities and caring homes on the Aryan side of the city.

The price for helping a Jewish child in wartime Warsaw was execution, and Irena and her core group of twenty to twenty five mostly women operatives, risked their lives daily to save each and every child. Children were smuggled out of the ghetto in a variety of ways. There were secret routes to the Aryan side of the city via sewers and underground corridors. Children were able to get across by sneaking through an old courthouse and a Catholic church that stood on the border of the ghetto. Irena’s epidemic control pass allowed her to officially bring a child out of the ghetto for treatment if they were ill with tuberculosis. Children with or without the disease were brought out this way. Some kids were hidden in ambulances, under floorboards or dirty rags, or in coffins along with dead bodies. The Nazis were terrified of disease and performed only cursory checks before waving ambulances through. The youngest, including babies, had to be sedated with tranquilizers and hidden in trucks in toolboxes, in sacks masquerading as laundry or potatoes, or under vegetable boxes. Some were left in briefcases on early morning streetcars that ran in and out of the ghetto and later picked up by a friend.

Once out of the ghetto, children had to take on new identities in order to integrate into Polish society. Sometimes documents were faked, other times legitimate blanks could be found. If children looked too Jewish, they had makeovers to make them look more Polish. Sometimes it was as easy as dying a child’s hair, other times Jewish boys had to become girls in order to prevent the Nazi authorities from checking for circumcisions.

Escaped children went on to live in homes of friends, in convents, in group homes, orphanages, or religious institutions, and Irena kept a list of each and every child placed with the hope of reuniting them with families after the war. She encoded and recorded only the most essential information such as names, addresses, and an account of any money that parents gave to help with caretaking on cigarette paper that nightly she prepared to throw out of her kitchen window in case the Gestapo, the Nazi secret police, ever came looking for her. Eventually, when it became too dangerous to keep the list at home, she buried it in glass bottles under an apple tree in a friend’s garden.

By this time Irena was already having nightmares on a regular basis. Not only did she worry about the children who would certainly be killed if they were ever discovered, she also worried about the families that were risking their lives to hide them. On top of everything, Irena was the sole person who knew the detailed histories of all the smuggled children. If anything were to happen to her, that information would be irretrievable.

Capture

In the fall of 1943, the Gestapo found and arrested a woman who ran a laundrette that the resistance used as a drop-off point for messages and packages. Charged with conspiring with the resistance, the woman was tortured and ultimately broke, giving up names of resistance operatives. One of those names was Irena Sendler’s. Days after, the Gestapo pounded on Irena’s door in the middle of the night. She was arrested, beaten, interrogated, and sent to Pawiak, a secret prison for intelligentsia and those politically involved. Most prisoners interned at Pawiak never left alive.

The Gestapo repeatedly tortured Irena for information, breaking her legs and feet, and permanently scarring her body. Despite the agony, Irena never said a word. She knew what divulging information would mean, a death sentence for thousands of children, friends and families. As luck would have it, the Gestapo thought they had captured only a fringe resistance operative, not the head of children’s division of the resistance movement, which meant Irena received no special treatment. Certainly if they realized who they were dealing with, they would have taken extra measures.

Irena lived at the prison for four months until her execution date was set for January 20, 1944. During the days, when she was not being tortured for information, Irena worked as a washerwoman cleaning soiled Nazi underwear. One day, when the Nazis found the laundry work not to their satisfaction, they lined up all the washerwomen against a wall and shot in the head every other one. Irena was one of the ones who survived.

On the morning of January 20th, a Nazi officer came to take Irena to the courtyard where she was to be shot. She was led down a corridor, but instead of being taken into the waiting room where she was to await her execution, the officer led her out of the prison and into the street. He released her and told her to run. As Irena later found out her friends in the resistance had bribed the Nazi with what today amounts to $100,000 to secure her escape.

End of the war and legacy

Once free, Irena went into hiding, and soon resumed her operations with the resistance. She continued rising in ranks until she was running meetings and setting agendas. In the summer of 1944, with the Soviets advancing, and the Nazis retreating, the Polish resistance army attempted to liberate Warsaw. They fought for two months, but were ultimately defeated by the Nazis. In response to the uprising, Heinrich Himmler, a most high ranking SS officer and the person responsible for forming and operating Nazi death camps, gave the order to kill all Polish residents of Warsaw and to level the entire city. “The city must completely disappear from the surface of the earth…,” he ordered. “No stone can remain standing. Every building must be razed to its foundation.” Ultimately more than 400,000 people were killed and eighty percent of Warsaw was destroyed by the retreating Nazi army. Irena miraculously survived the destruction.

After the Nazis were driven out of Warsaw, Irena and a friend went to dig up the list of children they had hidden in bottles. They searched and searched for the tree under which the list was buried, but found only rubble. Irena then set out, along with her friends, to recreate the list from memory. She continued working for decades helping reunite children with their families, and even adopted two orphaned Jewish girls herself.

Irena lived until 98, and passed away in Warsaw in 2008. Until the very end of her life she felt that she did not do enough to help children during the war.

Five years before her death Irena received Poland’s highest honour, the Order of the White Eagle, but she never enjoyed being called a hero.

“Let me stress most emphatically that we who were rescuing children are not some kind of heroes… Indeed, that term irritates me greatly.”

“Heroes do extraordinary things. What I did was not an extraordinary thing. It was normal.”

The children Irena saved during the war continued to call and visit her until the end of her life.

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