Almost everyone has heard of Oskar Schindler (Schindler’s List) and his heroic rescue of 1,200 Jews during Hitler’s reign . Not so many know about Irena Sendler, above, who as a 29-year-old Polish social worker ultimately rescued 2,500 Jewish children from Nazi occupiers of Warsaw, Poland, who had built a wall and a ghetto for the Jews.
Sendler had been influenced by her father, a doctor, who defied the Nazis and treated sick Jews during outbreaks of typhoid fever. Her father died of typhoid fever himself when Sendler was 9 years old.
Sendler in 1943 shortly after escaping from Pawiak prison.
Social workers were not allowed in the Warsaw ghetto, but Sendler went in anyway, along with 25 comrades she had recruited to help her, 24 of them women. They called themselves “Zegota”. Sendler and her sisters (and one brother) went into the Warsaw ghetto, risking their lives — Nazi orders were to shoot non-Jews and anyone who aided them on sight — and rescued children, carrying them out in baskets, boxes, wrapped up in packages, in coffins. Their parents, in anguish, would ask Sendler whether she could ensure their children would live. Sendler could not. But she knew and told them that if she did not carry the children to safety, they would surely die.
The jars containing names and information about the rescued children were buried here in Sendler’s friend’s garden, under the tree above. Her friend’s daughter, Hanna Piotrowska, who was 12 years old at the time her mother and Irena buried the jars, still lives at this residence.
Sendler found safe places for all of the 2,500 children she rescued — in orphanages, in private homes. She gave them non-Jewish aliases, carefully recording their true names on thin rolls of paper, hoping she could eventually reunite them with their families. She preserved the rolls of paper in jars she buried in a friend’s garden.
In 1943, Sendler was captured by the Nazis, imprisoned and tortured over many days. However brutal the torture — Sendler’s feet and legs were broken during one torture session and she passed out from the pain — Sendler never disclosed the names of her comrades, the location of her buried bottles containing the names of rescued children, or anything about the children. Eventually she was able to escape.
When the war ended, Sendler unearthed her jars and tried to reunite the children she had rescued with their families. Most of their families were dead. Many of the children she rescued were adopted by Polish families. Some went to Israel.
Megan (Felt) Stewart (above) stumbled on Sendler’s story as a 9th grader in Kansas, wrote a play about it, and made the world aware of what Sendler had done.
Although in 1965, Sendler was recognized by Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust authority, as a “Righteous Gentile”, an honor given to non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the reign of the Nazis, comparatively few knew of Sendler’s work until 1999, when a ninth grade girl in Kansas, Megan Felt, and several of her girlfriends, stumbled across an article about Sendler. Felt wrote a play about Sendler called “Life in a Jar,” and eventually traveled to Poland to meet her shero. Since 1999, Felt’s play has been presented over 250 times in three countries. Felt and her friends created the Irena Sendler Foundation, raising money to pay for Sendler’s care as an elder woman. In 2006, Sendler was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.
Sendler passed over at 98 years of age yesterday, May 12, in Warsaw Poland, of pneumonia. She leaves a daughter and a granddaughter to mourn.