Have you ever heard of Irena Sendler? I only came across her name recently, so I wouldn’t blame you if her name wasn’t familiar.

She was born on the 15th February 1910 in Warsaw, Poland. When Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, the brutality of the Nazi occupation soon became apparent.

At this time, Irena was a Senior Administrator in the Warsaw Social Welfare Department which was responsible for operating a number of canteens that provided food, financial aid and other services for orphans, the elderly, the poor and the destitute. Through Irena’s work these canteens were soon distributing clothing, medicine and money to the Jews. These people were registered under fictitious Christian names and in order to prevent inspections by the Nazis, all the families were reported to be carrying infectious diseases such as typhus or tuberculosis. On 12th October 1940, the Germans created the Warsaw Ghetto for the Jewish people. This area was over 2.5 square kilometres and by January 1941 it was home to over 400,000 people and this number rose to 460,000 by March 1941.


By 1942 the 16 block Ghetto was sealed and the Jewish families inside were awaiting their certain death. It was at this stage the Sendler became so appalled by the conditions that she conditions that she joined Żegota, the Polish underground resistance movement. In order to legally enter the Ghetto, Irena was able to be issued with a pass that allowed her daily access to the Ghetto. Inside she was able to re-establish contacts and was able to bring in much needed food, clothing and more important medicine. Despite Żegotas best efforts, over 5000 people were dying on a monthly basis from starvation and disease.

Irena and the other members of Żegota decided that they had to try and help some Jewish children to escape. The first challenge Irena faced was to persuade parents to part with their children. As a young mother herself, she realised that this was a horrendous task. She also had the mammoth job of finding families that were willing to shelter the children and therefore risking their own lives. Irena (who wore a Star of David armband to show her support to the Jews) was able to recruit 10 other people from the Social Welfare Department and this number quickly rose to 25. Working together, they first issued thousands of forged documents and were then able to successfully smuggle children out of the Ghetto and to safety.

Some children were taken out in gunnysacks or body bags. Some were buried inside loads of goods. A mechanic took a baby out in his toolbox. Some kids were carried out in potato sacks, others were placed in coffins, some entered a church in the Ghetto which had two entrances. One entrance opened into the Ghetto, the other opened into the Aryan side of Warsaw. They entered the church as Jews and exited as Christians. Irena recalled being asked by a distraught parent “Can you guarantee they will live?”. Her answer was simple – “I can only guarantee they will die if they stay.” Once removed from the Ghetto, the children were given false identities and placed in homes, orphanages and convents.

Irena Sendler carefully noted, in coded form, the children’s original names and their new identities. She kept the only record of their true identities in jars buried beneath an apple tree in a neighbour’s back yard, across the street from German barracks, hoping she could someday dig up the jars, locate the children and inform them of their past. In all, the jars contained the names of 2,500 children.

On 20th October 1943 Irena Sendler was arrested and imprisoned by the Gestapo. They tortured her and badly beat her breaking both of her arms, feet and legs. She withstood her vicious torture and would not supply the names and addresses of the families sheltered the Jewish children and would not betray her fellow smugglers. Irena was sentenced to death but was spared when Żegota members were able to bribe the Germans to stop the execution. She was able to escape from prison and spent the rest of the war being pursued by the Gestapo.

When the war was over, Sendler dug up the jar under the tree and started the painstaking process of trying to track down the families of the 2500 children.

She didn’t find many.

The vast majority of parents had been killed during the Holocaust, mostly in the Treblinka Extermination Camp. Many years after WW2 ended her photo appeared in a newspaper after she was honoured for her wartime work. It was then that she received a phone call. “A man, a painter, telephoned me,” said Sendler, “`I remember your face,’ he said. `It was you who took me out of the ghetto.’ I had many calls like that!”

This courageous woman, with never a thought for her own safety, was one of the most dedicated and active workers in aiding Jews during the Nazi occupation of Poland. Her courage enabled not only the survival of 2,500 Jewish children but also of the generations of their descendants. For obvious reasons she became known as “the female Oskar Schindler” in her native Poland.
In 1965, Irena Sendler was declared as one of the Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem.
In 2003 Pope John Paul II personally wrote her a letter praising her for her efforts and on 10th October 2003 she was honoured with the Order of the White Eagle, Poland’s highest honour.
In her later years Irena Sendler was cared for in a Warsaw nursing home by Elzbieta Ficowska, who – in July 1942, at six months old – had been smuggled out of the ghetto by Irena in a carpenter’s workbox.
In 2005 Irena Sendler reflected: “We who were rescuing children are not some kind of heroes. That term irritates me greatly. The opposite is true – I continue to have qualms of conscience that I did so little. I could have done more. This regret will follow me to my death.”
In 2006, 2007 and 2008 she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. This award is intended for “the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.” She would have been a worthy winner. The 2007 Nobel Peace Prize went to Al Gore for presenting a slide show on Global Warming which a High Court Judge said contained at least nine scientific errors and was “distinctly alarmist”.

I would suggest that there was something wrong with that.