#ShesGotVerve - Why We Love Irena Sendler
In 1939 the Germans invaded Poland and Irena Sendler nee Krzyzanowska began risking everything in order to feed and shelter Jews. Along with a handful of others she created forged documents that were used to save 500 Jewish lives and she was just getting started.
Then when the Warsaw Ghetto was created in 1940 and Warsaw’s 450,000 Jews were forced to live in little more than one square mile their isolation made helping them even more dangerous and difficult. Irena would not be deterred. By obtaining an illegal false ID as a nurse for the Contagious Disease Department Irena was able to carry clothing, food and medicine into the Ghetto and provide some relief for their illness, hunger and despair. But she didn’t stop there.
As the murderous intentions of the Nazis became obvious Irena (code name Jolanta) joined the Zegota an underground group formed by Polish citizens to assist the Jewish people. She used her position as overseer of the Children’s Division to enlist 10 brave and trustworthy female friends (the number rose to 25 by 1943) to begin the perilous work of that in the end saved the lives of an estimated 2,500 Jewish children.
Children were smuggled out in coffins and suitcases through sewers and tunnels and on trucks hidden under the dead. Once out each child was issued false identity papers and housed with those “host” families, Catholic convents and orphanages courageous enough to risk their lives for children who were not their own.
It was extremely important to Irena that every family hiding a jewish child understood that the child must be reunited with surviving relatives as soon as possible after the war. To ensure this she created a meticulous written record (in code) on bits of tissue paper with each child’s true name as well as their assigned name which she then sealed in jars.
Irena buried the jars in her neighbours garden in the hopes that she would outlive the war, dig them up, find the hidden children, explain their past and if at all possible track down related survivors. Tragically almost all of the saved children parents were killed in the Treblinka death camp.
On October 20, 1943 Irena was arrested by the Germans and tortured for information about other Zegota members, details about the network and where the children were hidden. Irena gave them nothing and even when both her legs and feet were broken she stuck to the fabricated story created by Zegota in the event of her capture.
During her last interrogation the Germans presented her with a file containing details about all those who had informed on her and then sentenced her to death. Although Irena had no knowledge of it Zegota managed to bribe her executioner and instead of shooting her he aided in her escape. She lived in hiding for the remainder of the war.
When the war was finally over Irena dug up her jars and began the painstaking work of finding the children and in rare cases reuniting them with a surviving parent. Many of the orphans were adopted by Polish families and those that weren’t were sent to Israel.
In 2003 Irena was the winner of the Jan Karski award for Valor and Courage and the Order of White Eagle Poland’s highest distinction. It is rumoured that she was nominated for the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize but lost out to Al Gore for his contribution to climate change education and awareness. Not sure how I feel about that….
Article by Anna Quick-Palmer