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We remember the Holocaust for the evil shadow it casts on human history, but forget that even in the darkest of times incredible acts of goodness and compassion could be found. Actions like these remind us that it is in the darkest moments where the brightest heroes often shine. Like the steady stream that creates a canyon, Irena Sendler’s consistent courage, day in and day out, changed the fate of over 2,500 Jewish children during the Holocaust of WWII. In Poland, she is affectionately known as the “mother of the holocaust children.”
Born outside of Warsaw, Poland in 1910, Irena Krzyżanowska Sendler (also known in Poland as Irena Sendlerowa) would learn compassion from her father, a catholic doctor who died of typhus, which he contracted while treating the Jewish patients his colleagues would not aid. The grateful Jewish community collectively paid for Irena’s education at Warsaw University. While a student, she began protesting the legalized segregation of Jewish students into separate parts of the classroom known as the “ghetto benches.” As a result she was suspended from the University for three years.
Irena’s focus would turn to social work and began working for the urban Social Welfare department. In 1939 the Germans invaded Poland and enacted strict death penalties for those aiding or hiding Jews as well as their families. Despite the risks Irena became active in the Polish underground movement known as Zegota, where Irena and her colleagues falsified over 3,000 documents to help Jewish families escape.
“Every child saved with my help and the help of all the wonderful secret messengers, who today are no longer living, is the justification of my existence on this earth, and not a title to glory.”
The Germans forced over 400,000 Jews into a Warsaw Ghetto the size of 16 city blocks, where disease and starvation ran rampant, and executions and deportations to death camps became a daily occurrence. Using her position in the Welfare Department, Irena was able to gain a special permit to enter the Ghetto to control the spread of typhus (which the Germans feared would spread outside of the Ghetto). Irena was nominated to become director of the children’s division within Zegota. As a symbol of solidarity with the Jews, she would wear a Star of David on her arm while performing her work in the Ghetto. She led the Germans to believe the star was to make her inconspicuous amongst the inhabitants while doing her duties.
Irena carefully organized a network of associates within the Ghetto, as well as with non-Jewish families, convents and orphanages to house the children she would rescue. She developed shared phrases such as “I have clothing for the convent,” so she could communicate when she had new children in need of placement. Irena also trained her dog to bark continually on command, which she would use to deter inquisitive guards and cover the noise of crying children.
The hardest part was convincing parents to give up their children. At times, mothers and families would not wish to let their children go, fearing they would never see their children again or that their children would lose their heritage. Unable to promise safety for even herself, Irena would respect their decision even though she knew the entire family would eventually die.
“We sometimes had to leave those unfortunate families without taking their children from them. I’d go back there the next day and often found that everyone had been taken… to the death camps.”
Each day she entered the Ghetto, Irena would leave with children in the back of her ambulance, in her toolbox, hidden under blankets, in sacks and even in caskets. Unlike others who were rescuing Jewish children, Irena’s intention was to keep the names and new identities of the rescued children and their families so she would be able to return them to Jewish relatives after the war. Aware of the risks to herself and those identified on the list, she kept the list buried in jars away from her house near an apple tree.
In 1943, after a year of rescuing children, Sendler came under suspicion of the Gestapo who arrested her. Despite severe torture, Irena would not give up the identities of the children or the people she worked with and was sentenced to execution by firing squad. While in prison, Irena organized resistance efforts, such as cutting holes in the soldiers underwear they washed. For this act, she barely escaped death as they killed every-other woman as they stood in a line. After a final torture session, where her arms and legs were broken, Irena regained consciousness to find that the German guard had been bribed by her friends within Zegota. The guard marked her off as executed and left her in the woods to be rescued.
Irena lived out the rest of the war in hiding and did what she could to help save Jewish children. After the war she dug up the jars with over 2,500 names and attempted to return the children to the parents, but nearly all of the relatives died in the Ghetto or been exterminated.
“To me and many rescued children, Irena Sendlerowa is a third mother. Good, wise, kind, always accepting, she shares our happiness and worries.” – Elzbieta Ficowska, one of the children saved by Sendler
As a twist of fate, the new communist government of Poland began persecuting Irena because they were only aware of her involvement with the German army and not her efforts to save the children. Her family was also persecuted and lived in poverty and public disgrace after her children were expelled from the University.
It wouldn’t be until many decades later that Irene’s deeds would be uncovered and her actions would be rightfully recognized by the Polish government and the international community. Irene Sendler never saw herself as a hero and even stated a wish that she wished she could have done more. After a life of great courage and humility, Irena died at the age of 98, on May 12, 2008. Even now, details of her heroism are being revealed through the letters she left behind and the children who she saved. This brave, devoted and altruistic woman risked her life multiple times for the sake of others, and for that humble example of love we honor her as a Moral Hero.