Irena Sendler, who died 2008 at 98, was a Polish social worker who helped save an estimated 2,500 Jewish children from the Nazis by smuggling them out of the Warsaw Ghetto and giving them false identities.
Her dramatic story, including how she was captured and nearly tortured to death and how she managed to preserve the children’s true identities in jars buried under an apple tree, became widely known only in recent years. A group of four Kansas schoolgirls brought her to worldwide attention. Last year, as Vice President Gore was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, voices around the globe called for it instead to be awarded to the savior of the Warsaw Ghetto.
When she heard that Israel’s Prime Minister Peres had written to President Kaczynski of Poland about nominating her for the Nobel, Sendler told The New York Sun: “This brings me great joy, but on the other hand it’s a shame my liaison officers are not alive. I would not have been able to do anything without the crew of people around me.”
Sendler, a Roman Catholic, was born in Otwock, outside Warsaw, on February 15, 1910. Her father was a physician who directed a spa hospital. Sendler remembered him as someone who taught great compassion: “If you see someone drowning, you must try to rescue them, even if you cannot swim.”
She was an administrator in Warsaw’s welfare department in 1940, when Nazi Germany occupied Poland. Nearly half a million Jews were sequestered in Warsaw’s tiny ghetto, where conditions were appalling. The Nazis ordered a stop to normal social services, such as food and health care. Charged with warding off typhus and tuberculosis, Sendler had official permission to move freely in the ghetto. She convinced Jewish parents to let her hide their children. She used an ambulance to smuggle children in burlap sacks and coffins. A dog seated next to her would sometimes bark to drown out the children’s cries. She received aid from the Zegota, the Polish Council to Aid the Jews.
The children were given new names and false documents, and placed with Christian Polish families and at Christian religious establishments. Sendler wrote their real names on slips of paper that she hid in bottles underground, intending to retrieve them later.
The Gestapo arrested Sendler in 1943 and tortured her brutally, breaking her legs and feet with wooden clubs. She was sentenced to be executed, but she escaped after the Zegota bribed a guard. She remained in hiding until the end of the war, then dug up the bottles under the apple tree and tried to reunite the children with their families. Most of the families had perished, though some were placed with relatives around Europe. She was known within Poland, but she received little publicity in the West during the Cold War years. In 1980, she joined the Solidarity movement.
In her interview with the Sun, Sendler said: “If someone is drowning, you have to give them your hand. When the war started, all of Poland was drowning in a sea of blood, and those who were drowning the most were the Jews. And among the Jews, the worst off were the children. So I had to give them my hand.”
Although honored by Israel in 1965 with a Medal of the Righteous, Sendler was not well-known until after the movie “Schindler’s List” (1993). Anticipating that the film would garner multiple Oscars (it won seven), U.S. News & World Report published an article on “The Other Schindlers” — among them Irena Sendler. The article helped inspire four high school girls in Uniontown, Kan., who wrote a play about her wartime adventures called “Life in a Jar.” The play won the 2000 Kansas state National History Day competition and has been performed 200 times around America. There have been rumors that Angelina Jolie is interested in starring in a film version of Sendler’s life.
Already married and divorced by the start of the war, Sendler went on to marry another underground activist, Stefan Zgrzembski. They had three children, one of whom survives, along with a granddaughter.
In recent years, she lived in a Warsaw nursing home, cared for by Elzbieta Ficowska. Sendler smuggled Ms. Ficowska out of the ghetto in a carpenter’s toolbox when Ms. Ficowska was six months old.
In 2005, she told a British newspaper, the Daily Express, that the greatest act of love she witnessed during the war was that of Jewish mothers parting with their children.
“The one question every parent asked me was, ‘Can you guarantee they will live?’
“We had to admit honestly that we could not, as we did not even know if we would succeed in leaving the ghetto that day. The only guarantee was that the children would most likely die if they stayed. In my dreams, I still hear the cries when they left their parents.”