The Woman Who Helped Thousands Escape: Irena Sendler

by Diana Castaneda

Irena Sendler had an impact on the lives of many. During WWII, the Nazis took Jewish families from their homes and forced them into ghettos where they would await an eventual death. Irena set out on a mission to save others and eventually saved a total of over 2,500 Jewish children.


An image of Irena Sendler


German Occupation of Warsaw, Poland


An image within the Warsaw Ghetto, from IWM.org.uk.


Leading to the start of the Second World War, Germany had invaded Poland on the 1st of September, 1939. A largely Jewish city in Poland, Warsaw had faced military attacks after the invasion. Weeks after the invasion and surrender of Warsaw, troops from Germany began to enter the city. Among a number of orders given by the German establishment was the order to turn the city into an established ghetto.


Ghettos during the time of the Holocaust were a way that Nazis would punish the Jewish people of Europe and separate them in an aggressive manner. The conditions in these ghettos were commonly known for being inhumane and many would die from diseases or a lack of food.


In the Warsaw Ghetto established in October 1940, all Jewish residents were soon ordered to move into an area away from the rest of the Warsaw population. It was estimated that approximately 400,000 Jewish people were cramped in small rooms, with a total area of less than 2 square miles. Jewish people in ghettos would be deported to concentration camps, where they would be killed.


Irena’s Mission


Irena Sendler was born in a city, not far from Warsaw in 1910. Upon the invasion of Poland, Irena had been working in the Warsaw Social Welfare Department, where she would help people who lived in poverty, older citizens, and anyone else who needed help.


In 1942, following the establishment of the Warsaw Ghetto, she became a member of Zegota, or Council to Aid the Jews. Zegota was an underground organization that was created in order to save Jewish people from Nazis. She joined the organization upon seeing the conditions of the Warsaw Ghetto and soon became the leader of the Zegota’s Children’s Bureau.


To get children out, she had to figure out how to get into the ghetto, which was often done through the use of documents. Upon entry, she, as well as other members of the Bureau, began to lead children out of the ghetto through places such as underground corridors, churches, and ambulances.


Children would also be snuck out in bags of goods or body bags. Infants would be sedated and snuck out in coffins, occasionally even escaping through toolboxes. Having the children sneak out was no easy task; she would have to convince parents to separate from their children for the betterment of their lives, potentially never seeing them again.


As well as assisting children to sneak out, she would often help bring essentials to the ghetto. Once children had been snuck out, Sendler would find places to take the children for refuge.


Often, the place of refuge would be with Catholic families from the area. In these new locations, the children would have a new identity. Sendler made sure to store and hide the child’s original identity.


Her intentions for storing these identities? She hoped to eventually contact all of the children, and let them know their story.


Irena’s Arrest


Soon, the Nazis realized what Sendler was doing, and she was arrested on October 20th, 1943. In prison, she was tortured. However, Irena refused to give up any information regarding the children she helped escape, or people who helped others escape. Sendler had originally been given a death sentence, and on the day of her scheduled execution, members of the Zegota bribed officers of the Gestapo (German secret police) for her release.


Following the war, Sendler had to stay in hiding. She continued to do her best to help others escape. Sendler later contacted the children she helped escape, in an attempt to reunite them with family. Sadly, many of those she contacted lost their family because of the Holocaust.


Recognition


An image of Irena Sendler in 2003 at the award ceremony receiving Order of the White Eagle, the highest honor in Poland, from https://irenasendler.org/


After appearing in a newspaper, many escapees contacted Sendler, saying they remembered her helping them escape. After the War, different Jewish organizations had honored Irena Sendler, and in 2003 she was given the highest honor in Poland. Four years later, in 2007, she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.


Similar Figures


An image of Marianne Golz-Goldlust, from jfr.org.

Many, like Irena Sendler, risked their lives to help Jewish people. Some of these members included: Wladyslaw Bartoszewski from Poland who became a leader of Zegota (helping more than 40,000 Jewish people), Ivan Beltrami from France who became a part of the resistance movement (made up of different groups who opposed the Nazi government) and helped to rescue Jewish people and hide them in various locations, Kira Belkova from the Soviet Union who helped save two friends when it was announced that the Jewish people of the area would be relocated, Theressa and Pierto Giovannucci from Italy who helped hide two families for 9 months, and Marianne Golz-Goldlust from Austria who was part of an anti-Nazi resitance group and helped to form a network which helped Jewish people escape.


Thousands of others from varying countries during the Holocaust undertook courageous acts in order to save others, regardless if that risk meant their life. These heroes are truly important and they helped many people; they are an inspiration because of their selflessness.





Citations

  • Editors from The Jewish Foundation for the Righteous. “Rescuer Stories.” The Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, jfr.org/rescuer-stories/sendler-irena/.

  • Editors from the Jewish Virtual Library. “Irena Sendler (1910-2008).” Jewish Virtual Library: A Project of Aice, www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/irena-sendler.

  • Editors from the Museum of the History of Polish Jews. “MEMBERS OF ‘ŻEGOTA.’” Museum of the History of Polish Jews, sprawiedliwi.org.pl/en/o-sprawiedliwych/rada-pomocy-zydom-zegota/czlonkowie-zegoty.

  • The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Irena Sendler.” Britannica, 11 June 2008, www.britannica.com/biography/Irena-Sendler.

  • The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Resistance.” Britannica, 20 July 1998, https://www.britannica.com/event/resistance-European-history.

  • United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, DC. “Ghettos.” Holocaust Encyclopedia, 4 Dec. 2009, encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/ghettos.

  • United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, DC. “Warsaw.” Holocaust Encyclopedia, encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/warsaw.

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