Irena Sendlerowa (Sendler), a Catholic who became known as the “Polish Angel,” saved the lives of an estimated 2,500 Jewish children during the Holocaust. Sendler was born in Otwock, Poland, in 1910, and died on May 12, 2008. Her father, a kind and generous physician whose patients included the poor Jews of the city, exerted enormous influence on his daughter. “My father instilled in me two principles: People are good or bad,” Sendler related. “Religion, race and nationality are immaterial. What counts is the distinction between good and bad.”
It was the second principle that gave special meaning to Sendler when the Nazis unleashed their horrors on Poland. “Remember, when someone is drowning, extend a helping hand,” Sendler recalled her father telling her. The Jews were drowning in a sea of blood in German-occupied Poland.
The Terrorized Warsaw Ghetto
After the Germans defeated Poland in the September Campaign of 1939, they imposed an occupation characterized by terror, enslavement and extermination of civilians on an unprecedented scale. By 1942, it became clear that the Germans intended to slaughter all the Jews.
Forced by the Germans to live in crowded ghettos, Jews were later herded off to death camps. The largest concentration of Jews in Europe was in the Warsaw Ghetto, a small enclave separated from the Christian population by walls and barbed wire.
Sendler, a 29-year-old social worker when the war broke out, worked for Warsaw’s Department of Social Service. Her department regularly aided poor Jews and Christians in the city.
But all that changed when the Germans forced the Jews into the Warsaw Ghetto. The Germans forbade Poles to give any kind of aid to the Jewish people. Poland was the only German-occupied country where giving aid to a Jew carried the death penalty. Thousands of Poles lost their lives for violating this Nazi order.
From the beginning of the German invasion and occupation, Poles helped Jews who were friends, neighbors and colleagues. Some political organizations offered assistance, too.
But as the intentions of the Germans to annihilate the Jewish people became evident, it was obvious that assistance to the Jews had to be organized, coordinated and funded on a broader scale. This reality led to the establishment of an extraordinary organization, unique in German-occupied Europe, in which Irena Sendler played a major role. In December 1942, the Poles established the Council for Aid to Jews, better known by its code name, Zegota.
Irena Sendler, who went by the underground name Jolanta, was a prominent member of a remarkable group of social activists who dedicated their lives to the extremely dangerous cause of saving as many Jews as possible. Zegota provided food, clothing, shelter, forged documents and money to thousands of Jews.
Zegota made an inspired selection when it chose Sendler to head the organization’s Children’s Bureau. Sendler, who had considerable experience in outwitting the Germans as a social worker, had frequently entered the Warsaw Ghetto with passes from the Department of Sanitation. Wearing the Star of David as a sign of solidarity with the Jews, Sendler and her close colleague, Irena Schultz, distributed food, money and medicine to the ghetto inhabitants. As many as 3,000 men, women and children benefited from their assistance.
Urgent and Dangerous Task
The situation in the Warsaw Ghetto worsened to the point that 5,000 people were dying every day. As the head of Zegota’s Children’s Bureau, Sendler had a keen appreciation of the urgency of the task before her. “I became convinced of the necessity to organize efforts to escort children out of the ghetto to the Aryan side of the city, ” she said. “Hitler created hell for all of us in Poland. But the kind of hell he made for the Jews was even greater.”
Her task was difficult and dangerous. She and her associates secured the names and addresses of Jewish children who lived in the miserable conditions of the ghetto. “When we reached their homes, ” Sendler said, “we said that we had the possibility of saving the children by taking them out of the ghetto walls.”
But parents asked for guarantees. “We had to reply honestly that we could not give any guarantee because we didn’t even know whether we could get out of the ghetto, ” Sendler said.
What followed were heartbreaking Dantesque scenes. Sendler recounted a haunting scene: “The father agreed to part with the child but the mother did not. The grandmother, amid tears and sobs, cuddled the child and said, ‘I will not give up the child for anything.’ “
Smuggling Precious Cargo
Irena Sendler needed the assistance of countless numbers of selfless people like herself to transport secretly their precious cargo from the walled ghetto to the Christian side of the city. There were hundreds of people who helped Zegota in its lifesaving work.
Sendler and her associates used four different methods to escort Jewish children out of the ghetto. One way was to use an ambulance that, with the permission of the Germans, carried medical supplies into the ghetto every day. After the supplies were unloaded, the ambulance driver surreptitiously took on a small passenger, often hidden in a secret compartment.
Sometimes children were placed in gunnysacks, body bags and even coffins. Elzbieta Ficowska, rescued when she was about five months old, was carried out in a carpenter’s toolbox.
Since the Warsaw Ghetto was an artificial German creation that separated the Jews from the Christian population of the city, Sendler and her friends were sometimes able to escort the children through the corridors and gates of the Polish Court, which faced the Polish side of the street. Their success depended upon sympathetic Polish janitors, who guided them through the building.
Another more difficult route was to get through the basements of ghetto buildings and link up with a labyrinth of basements on the Polish side of the walls.
The fourth method of escape was unbelievably simple but very effective. Every morning, a tram arrived at a depot near the ghetto. The tram operator was a member of Zegota. Sendler or one of her associates, who had forged documents for the Jewish child in case a German asked for them, escorted the child to the streetcar, which crossed into the Polish side of the city.
Finding Safe Homes
After escaping from the ghetto, Jewish children usually went to temporary safe houses until permanent homes could be found for them. The Jewish children were taught enough Polish that they could pass for Poles.
Sendler’s Children’s Bureau found permanent homes for the children in Catholic religious communities and in private homes. Despite huge losses of the Polish clergy at the hands of the Nazis, Polish priests, monks and nuns worked closely with Zegota in caring for Jewish children.
A good example was Father Marceli Godlewski, who hid many young Jewish children who tried to elude their Nazi pursuers. Many priests and monks provided Jewish children and adults with false baptismal certificates to enable them to pose as Catholics.
Parish priests were too visible and their rectories inadequate to provide long-term shelter to these Jewish children. Those who did often ended up paying with their lives. Some escaped, such as Father Jozef Pochoda, who had to flee his parish before the Gestapo caught up with him for having baptized two Jewish children.
Sometimes Jewish children passed from one rectory to another. Father Konstanty Cabaj accepted a Jewish child from a mother on her way to her death. The priest cared for the child until the Gestapo got too inquisitive. Cabaj then sent the child to a priest in another city.
A large number of monastic orders were involved in the work of aiding Jewish children and adults. These included the Franciscans, the Congregation of the Mission (Vincentians), the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, the Salesian Society, the Congregation of Marist Fathers, the Association of Catholic Apostleship, the Capuchins and the Dominicans.
Perhaps the best-known clerical establishment in Warsaw that cared for Jewish children was the home of Father Boduen. Irena Sendler and her staff placed approximately 200 Jewish children in his home during the German occupation. Despite the fact that it was common knowledge among Poles that many Jewish children resided at Boduen, no one informed the Gestapo.
Polish nuns were in the best position to care for Jewish children on a prolonged basis because their convents were often scattered in some of the more remote areas of the country, which lessened the risk of Gestapo scrutiny. Besides, Polish nuns saw their most important work to be caring for children, the most helpless and vulnerable victims of the war.
Irena Sendler had personal contacts with the superiors of most of the major orders actively involved in hiding Jewish children. Four orders—the Grey Sisters, the Little Servants of the Immaculate Conception, the Franciscans of the Family of Mary and the Order of Saint Elizabeth—accounted for almost 25 percent of Polish nuns. Upon receiving a prearranged code from Sendler or another representative of Zegota, nuns in these orders regularly went to Warsaw to escort Jewish boys and girls back to their convents.
To be sure, there were many other religious orders that cared for Jewish children during the war. One historian has located 189 Polish convents in which Jewish children were hidden. Probably as many as two thirds of the religious communities in wartime Poland sheltered Jewish children and adults.
Szymon Datner, a distinguished Jewish historian, said about Polish nuns, “No other sector was so ready to help those persecuted by the Germans. This attitude, unanimous and general, deserves recognition and respect.”
Polish families also cared for Jewish children. Before placing a Jewish child in a Polish home, Irena Sendler and her associates gave the children forged documents, produced by the thousands by the Polish Underground, which provided them with new Christian identities.
Sendler personally kept an index on strips of narrow tissue paper that identified all of the children rescued from the ghetto. She dutifully recorded the child’s Jewish name, his or her temporary Christian name and where the child lived.
The younger children did not understand their tragedy and quickly got used to their new Polish guardians, who were often childless couples, yearning to fill that void.
Sometimes, for the safety of the children and their protectors, Jewish children had to be taken away and placed with other families when the suspicions of the Gestapo were aroused. “Attached to his adoptive family,” Sendler related, “the child did not want to leave under any circumstances. Once I drove a crying, heartsick boy to other guardians. Amid tears and sobs, he asked me, ‘Madam, how many mothers is it possible to have, because I’m going to my 32nd mother.’ “
Older Jewish boys and girls had more difficulty than younger children adjusting to their new environment. Living with the constant horror of being identified as Jewish, they knew that “Jews will be killed. One could no longer be a Jew,” explained Sendler.
Gestapo Searches for Evidence
Irena Sendler’s clandestine work caught up with her on the night of October 20, 1943. She was at home with her ailing mother, who suffered from heart trouble. Also present was a friend and colleague in the conspiracy.
The Germans banged so hard on the door of the apartment that the women thought the door would come off its hinges. Fearing that the index of names of Jewish children would fall into German hands, Sendler gave the index to her friend, who quickly tucked it into her underwear.
The Gestapo searched the apartment for two hours, tearing up the floor, looking for incriminating evidence but never searching Sendler’s friend. The lives of 2,500 Jewish children had been saved!
Between Septemer 1940 and July 1942, an estimated 100,000 Jewish men, women and children died in the Warsaw Ghetto. Another 300,000 Jews were sent from there in 1942 to die in the Treblinka concentration camp.
The Gestapo took Sendler to Pawiak, the notorious prison where hundreds of Poles had died. Beaten, tortured and sentenced to death, she had every reason to believe that she would be shot or hanged. But, thanks to a well-placed bribe by Zegota officials to the Gestapo, the Germans freed her.
After Sendler’s release from Pawiak, she retrieved the index of names and buried it in jars under a tree, where it remained until the Warsaw Uprising of August-September 1944. She dug up the jars and held on to the index until the end of the war, when she gave the names of the Jewish children to a representative of the Jewish Committee. In the months following the war, Jewish officials took charge of the children.
Irena Sendler, the Polish Angel, had completed her extraordinary mission with determination, resourcefulness and courage.
Irena Sendler survived the war, resumed her career as a social worker and received numerous tributes for her courageous work.
When she received the Jan Karski award for valor and courage in 2003, Pope John Paul II expressed his “hearty congratulations and respect for your extraordinary, brave activities in the years of occupation… “
Sendler was nominated for the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize by the Polish and Israeli governments, but lost to former Vice President Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
In 2007, ABC news described the 97-year-old Sendler as “a portrait of strength” for defying “arrest, torture and the threat of death to save 2,500 Jewish children from almost certain death in Nazi death camps.”
Irena Sendler’s life was one of great testimony, courage and love.
For more information about Life in a Jar, go to irenasendler.org.
Life in a Jar
In 1999, Norman Conard showed four of his students in rural Kansas a magazine clip about Irena Sendler, a Polish woman who was credited with saving 2,500 Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto during the Holocaust. He was not familiar with the story and encouraged his high school students to develop it as a project for National History Day.
Megan Stewart, Elizabeth Cambers, Jessica Shelton and Sabrina Coons accepted their teacher’s challenge, which led to their writing a play titled Life in a Jar. The title refers to the index of names Irena Sendler hid in jars.
This play has grown from a local production to performances around the United States and in Europe.
Irena Sendler forged a close attachment to the students, writing them a letter in 2001 that credited them with making her story widely known. “My emotion is being shadowed by the fact that no one from the circle of my faithful co-workers, who constantly risked their lives, could live long enough to enjoy all the honors that now are falling upon me,” she wrote.
Conard, who directs the play, notes that his students accumulated 4,000 pages of research, obtaining most facts from Irena Sendler. He recalls one person she asked them to add to the play: Sister Matylda Getter. “Sister Getter ran five convents and hid hundreds, never turning down a child,” explains Conard.
When Irena Sendler died on May 12, 2008, services were planned in numerous places, including Fort Scott, Kansas. Norman Conard said, “We have lost a giant of the human race. She represented and still represents the best about our world. We have lost a family member.”