Compassion and Courage: The Life of Irena Sendler
The Holocaust was, unarguably, one of the most horrific events in recorded history. Approximately six million Jewish men, women and children were murdered in an act of “ethnic cleansing.” While Jews were their main target, the Nazis also killed millions of others that included gay people, the disabled, the Roma and Sinti people, and political opponents.
Standing up to this extreme mass murder took tremendous courage, and yet, there were countless people that put their life on the line and could not look away from the terror that surrounded them.
Irena Sendler was one of these people.
The Warsaw Ghetto
Warsaw, Poland, was, pre-WWII, home to the second largest Jewish community in the world, preceded only by New York City. In September 1939, the city of 1.3 million surrendered to German troops and, shortly thereafter, Jews in the city were forced to identify themselves by wearing white armbands with a blue Star of David. Their property was confiscated and Ghettos, a word that originated from the name of the Jewish quarter in Venice, Italy, were established by the Nazis as a means of segregation. The Warsaw Ghetto was, by far, the largest one in occupied Poland with an estimated 400,000 Jews forced into an enclosed 1.3 square miles.
There, despite the efforts of welfare organizations that attempted to smuggle in food and other necessities, over 80,000 Jews died of starvation and disease and approximately 35,000 were killed. Those that managed to survive were deported to forced-labor camps or killing centers.
In 1945, Soviet troops liberated the toppled city to find only about 174,000 people remaining, 11,500 of them of Jewish descent.
Saving the Children
Were it not for Irena Sendler, and dozens of others, thousands of Jewish children would not have survived the atrocities of the Nazi regime. Sendler was, at one time, a Senior Administrator in the Warsaw Social Welfare Department—an organization that provided meals, financial aid, and other necessities to those in need. Because of her background, she was issued a pass from Warsaw’s Epidemic Control Department that enabled her to enter the Ghetto legally.
She watched as 5,000 people died every month, and decided, despite the dangers, to help secretly move as many children as she could out of the Ghetto. The first heart wrenching act was to persuade parents and grandparents to part with their children. According to the Jewish Virtual Library, Irena Sendler remembers parents asking her, “Can you guarantee they will live?” But all she could guarantee is that they would die if they stayed. “In my dreams, I still hear the cries when they left their parents.”
Sendler and her coworkers then found ways to smuggle the children out. Some went out in ambulances, while others were placed into body bags and coffins. One baby was placed in a mechanic’s toolbox, and still others left through an exit in a church and underground passageways.
She is accredited with leading the rescue of 2,500 Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto, finding hiding places for them, and obtaining falsified documents to help protect them and give them temporary new identities.
In a testament to those she sought help from, she said, “No one ever refused to take a child from me.” Most were placed in homes, orphanages, and convents. The true names and identities of the children were placed in jars and buried beneath a tree in a neighbor’s backyard, in the hopes that someday she could locate the children and let them know about their past and their true identity.
In October 1943, Sendler was arrested by the Gestapo, imprisoned, and tortured, leaving both her feet and legs broken. She refused to betray the children or the families that were hiding them and was sentenced to death. The Polish underground managed to bribe a guard, and she escaped on the day of her scheduled execution and went into hiding.
In 1981, she was made an honorary citizen of Israel, and, in 2003, was awarded Poland’s highest distinction, the Order of White Eagle in Warsaw.
Despite her many recognitions, few knew of her courageous story, buried beneath 45 years of communism.
Her Story is Told
Little was known about Sendler’s work during the war. Recognition came, of all places, from students in rural Kansas. There, in 1999, a teacher encouraged his students to work on a year-long National History Day project. One of the stipulations was that it teach respect and tolerance and meet their classroom motto, “He who changes one person, changes the world entire.”
They heard about this Polish Catholic woman that saved Jewish children. From this knowledge was born Life in a Jar: The Irena Sendler Project. The students wrote a play in which they portrayed her life. Thus far, it has been performed throughout the state of Kansas, all over North America, and in Europe, and is still being performed today with a performance scheduled in New Brunswick, Canada, in 2021. The project has gained world-wide media attention and has developed into a motion picture and an award-winning book.
The students and Irena exchanged letters. One of the many she wrote to them read, “I can’t find words to thank you, for my own country and the world to know of the bravery of rescuers. Before the day you had written Life in a jar, the world did not know our story; your performance and work is continuing the effort I started over fifty years ago. You are my dearly beloved ones.”
Irena Sendler is a testament to the incredible accomplishments that follow the courageous and compassionate acts of one woman. Her legacy is one of love, respect, and empathy for all races and religions. She was truly an Erasist—doing her best to erase hate, injustice, inequality, and racism.
Pope John Paul II wrote this to Irena Sendler on November 13, 2003: “Honorable and dear Madam, I have learned you were awarded the Jan Karski prize for Valor and Courage. Please accept my hearty congratulations and respect for your extraordinarily brave activities in the years of occupation, when—disregarding your own security—you were saving many children from extermination, and rendering humanitarian assistance to human beings who needed spiritual and material aid. Having been yourself afflicted with physical tortures and spiritual sufferings you did not break down, but still unsparingly served others, co-creating homes for children and adults. For those deeds of goodness for others, let the Lord God in his goodness reward you with special graces and blessing. Remaining with respect and gratitude, I give the Apostolic Benediction to you.”