Irena Sendler

Irena Sendler c. 1942

Irena Sendler grew up in Poland watching her father treat poor patients who had been turned away by other doctors. Her father’s compassion inspired her to stand up for her beliefs during the Holocaust. Over the years, Irena managed to save 2,500 children from the Warsaw Ghetto and send them off to safe hiding places.

While at college, Irena was appalled by the segregation of Jewish students from the rest of the class. She protested by sitting where Jewish students were forced to sit and was expelled. Through her job at the Warsaw Social Welfare Department, she worked to provide clothes, medical care and money for Jews who now found themselves destitute under Nazi rule. She registered families under fictitious Christian names and often claimed that a member of the household was plagued with an infectious disease to prevent any visits from Nazi authorities.

In 1940, the Warsaw Ghetto was established and the Nazis began to round up all the Jewish people in the surrounding area. Irena secured an entry pass that allowed her to inspect the sanitary conditions in the Ghetto and she smuggled in medicine, food and clothing. After seeing the appalling conditions in the Ghetto, Irena decided that she must start saving the children. In the summer of 1942, the Nazis started to transfer the Ghetto residents to extermination camps. Irena joined other resistance workers to take action against the Nazis and save the children in the Ghetto. Persuading parents to let their children go proved difficult and many parents refused to send their children away. Obliging parents would have their children smuggled out of the Ghetto in boxes or suitcases while others were in coffins.

Irena kept records of the children, listing both their real names and their false identity, so that one day they could be re-united with their families. After the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943, in which Irena had taken part, the Gestapo raided her house. She hid the list of names but was arrested and was brutally tortured but refused to answer any questions. To help Jews was punishable by death and Irena was to be executed. However, the resistance group she had worked with bribed a Gestapo officer, halting her execution and allowing her to escape from prison. For the rest of the war she lived in hiding and buried the list of children’s names in a neighbour’s garden. After the war, Irena dug up the jars in an attempt to reunite the children with any surviving family. Unfortunately, many parents and relatives had died in the camps.

In 2005, some of the children she had saved from the Holocaust asked why she did what she did, to which she answered, “You cannot separate people based on their race or religion, you can only separate people by good and evil. The good will always triumph”.

This post was submitted by Josie Barwick, a Young Volunteer at The Wiener Library. To learn more about volunteering at the Library, visit our website.