Irena Sendlerowa

irena sendler

Irena Sendlerowa in Warsaw

Irena Sendlerowa, also known as Irena Sendler was born on February 15, 1910, in Warsaw. She worked as a former social worker in Warsaw, Poland. During the Second World War she was an activist in the Polish Underground and she helped save approximately 2,500 Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto by smuggling them out of the ghetto, and providing them with hiding places and false papers.

As a member of Zegota, a secret organisation set up by the Polish government in exile, in London, to rescue Polish Jews, Irena organised a small group of social workers to smuggle Jewish children to safety. She worked in the Warsaw Health Department and had permission to enter the ghetto, which had been established during November 1940, to segregate the Jewish population from the rest of the inhabitants.

Irena and her team smuggled the children out of the ghetto by various means, such as hiding them in ambulances, or guiding them through the sewer pipes, wheeling them out on a trolley or in suitcases or boxes, or taking them out through the back door entrance in the Court House on Leszno Street. She noted the names of the children on cigarette papers, twice for security, and sealed then in two glass jars, which she buried in a colleague's garden.

After the Second World War ended in 1945, the jars were dug up and the lists handed to Jewish representatives. Attempts were then made to reunite the children with their families, but most of them had perished in the death camps, particularly Treblinka, which had been used to exterminate the Jews of Warsaw.

Irena Sendlerowa was arrested during October 1943, and was taken to the Gestapo Headquarters on the Aleja Szucha, where she was tortured during interrogations, and the Gestapo planned to execute her. But Zegota managed to bribe the Gestapo for her release and she was knocked unconscious and left by the roadside. During the occupation Irena was sentenced to death by the Right Wing Polish Underground for rescuing Jewish children.

On March 15, 2007, Irena Sendlerowa was named a national hero by Poland's parliament and was nominated for that year's Nobel Peace Prize. Irena who was then living in a Warsaw nursing home, insisted, she did nothing special. In an interview she said, 'I was brought up to believe that a person must be rescued when drowning, regardless of religion and nationality. The term 'hero' irritates me greatly - the opposite is true - I continue to have pangs of conscience that I did so little.'

One of those Jewish children rescued, Elzbieta Ficowska, who was smuggled out of the ghetto by Irena Sendlerowa in a toolbox on a lorry, when she was just five months old, said, 'In the face of today's indifference, the example of Irena Sendlerowa is very important. Irena Sendlerowa is like a third mother to me and many rescued children.' Elzbieta was thus referring Irena, to her real birth mother and her Polish foster mother.

Irena Sendlerowa died on May 12, 2008, in a Warsaw nursing home.


The Guardian Newspaper

Polish State Archives (Warsaw)

BBC World News

Photograph: Private Archives

Holocaust Historical Society 2017