How could one person save 2,500 children from extermination camps? One determined woman, Irena Sendler of Poland, did just that. She was only 4 feet, 11 inches tall. Yet during the early years of Nazi occupation of Poland she risked her life again and again, going into the Warsaw Ghetto; smuggling out Jewish children and getting them to places of safety.
When the National Socialists of Germany invaded Poland in September of 1939, Irena was an employee in the Department of Social Welfare and Public Health in Warsaw. The fighting between the German and Polish armies was over in just two weeks, but Irena continued to aid wounded and sick Polish soldiers, provide for them false medical documents, and with others smuggle them out of the clutches of the Nazis.
The Nazis had plans for the Jews, of course. They herded some 400,000 Jews into the tiny Warsaw Ghetto and sealed it off from the outside world. Irena had friends in the Ghetto, and gained permission from the Nazis to go in (disguised as a medical aid worker) to check for typhus. The Nazis were terrified that typhus could break out, get outside the Ghetto, and kill off German soldiers. While she was in the Ghetto she brought with her smuggled medicines, food, clothing, and other necessities. She then began the process of taking “valuables” out of the Ghetto: Jewish children.
Irena was a member of the Polish Socialist Party, which cooperated with the communist Polish Workers’ Party in their underground war against their fellow socialists—the Nazis. Yet, even as a Marxist, she saw the cruelty and unjustness and savagery of the Nazis against the Jewish people. She was determined to do something to stop the Nazis.
In 1942, with the liquidation of the Ghetto (the Nazis were shipping out the Jews every day for death camps), Irena Sendler would sneak into the Ghetto, gather as many children as she could, and use every ingenious method she and others could think of to get these children out. Some had false identification papers. For some she only had to bribe a German guard to look the other way. For others she brought them out inside nailed coffins! But once outside, she arranged to have the children sent to Polish families, or to monasteries or convents. Although all the Jewish children were given “Christian” names, she kept meticulous records of their Jewish names and the names of their families. She had hopes of reuniting them with their families after the war—if any survived. She also did not want them to lose their Jewish identity.
On October 11, 1943 she was arrested and beaten by the Gestapo. Despite repeated torture, she never broke; she never revealed the secret information about the children. Irena was even sent to the firing squad, but at the last minute the German detail was bought off and later through a bribe from the Polish underground, she was released from prison.
Irena worked as a nurse throughout the rest of the war. In 1965 the nation of Israel recognized her efforts to save Jews and listed her as “Righteous Among the Nations.” Although she was a firm believer in communism for decades, in 1980 she joined the anti-Soviet/anti-communist Solidarity movement of Lech Walesa. Irena Sendler died on May 12, 2008, at the age of 98.