In a corner of the Warsaw Ghetto during World War Two, a woman is figuring out how she can get an infant of a mere five months to safety. At any moment, the Nazis could find her. And if they do, the outlook for her and the child is grim. But if Irena Sendler is afraid, she doesn’t let it stop her.
When she has gotten the child to her new home, Sendler writes the infant’s name, the child’s parents’ names and where the infant will live on a piece of paper, which she puts in a jar. In the jar are many other names – the identities of the Jewish children she’s saved from the Nazis.
At the time of the German invasion of Poland, Sendler had been a social worker and still a young woman at 29. Her job in the city of Warsaw’s welfare department brought her into contact with people who had very little. And Sendler’s main focus was on Jewish residents, who were barbarically oppressed by the vile Nazi regime and desperately needed her help.
Born in Warsaw, Sendler had grown up in Otwock, not far from Poland’s capital. Although she’d been baptized a Roman Catholic, she grew up to be an agnostic and developed a fondness for Jewish people, who made up most of her doctor father’s clientele.
In fact, her father, Stanisław Henryk Krzyżanowski, worked without pay to help the poor of Otwock. He was also a pioneer among Polish socialists, and from him Sendler inherited left-wing political views. Krzyżanowski was certainly dedicated – he would lose his life caring for typhus sufferers when the disease caused his death in 1917.
Moreover, Sendler’s university studies were disrupted by her activism. She wouldn’t accept the system of separate seating for Jewish students that became prevalent in the late 1930s. On top of that, she damaged her grade card so it wouldn’t show that she wasn’t Jewish. And her love of Jewish people and leftwing politics saw her disciplined by the university.
The university had very little good to say about Sendler, in fact, who consequently couldn’t get a job with a Warsaw school. She moved on to be connected with the Free Polish University, where she found her views influenced by communists. It was there that she also joined up with social workers who would later be her allies in helping Jews escape the Nazi terror.
In the meantime, Sendler had wed Mieczysław Sendler. But the course of their marriage would be interrupted by the war. Mieczysław was called up when the Germans invaded, but for him the conflict ended in imprisonment. And it turned out that Sendler couldn’t just sit and wait for his return.
Mieczysław wasn’t alone in being captured, of course. More than 400,000 Poles were taken by the Germans when they invaded in September 1939, and in excess of 60,000 lost their lives. Poland suffered a swift defeat, unable to hold back the simultaneous attack by the Nazis and the Soviets. So within six weeks, the invaders had overwhelmed the nation.
When the Germans entered Warsaw, they encountered a diverse city that was home to more than a quarter million Jews in 1938, a number that swelled as the Nazis swept through the surrounding countryside. But things had already become tough for the Jewish population, with laws and boycotts making life hard for the minority.
And life would become even harder when the Nazis took control of Poland. They imported their own especially repugnant brand of antisemitism, which no longer distinguished Jews on the basis only of religion. Instead, according to this hateful ideology, Jews were deemed to be different from Germans biologically – sub-humans, in fact, who would have to be eradicated.
The Nazis didn’t waste too much time turning the screw on Poland’s Jews. Early in the occupation, the Nazis began to persecute them, first of all subjecting Jews to forced labor. Next, they closed bank accounts and forced Jewish residents to wear distinctive clothing. By January 1940 Jews were no longer permitted to gather to pray. And over time the wider Jewish population of Poland found itself forced to relocate to Warsaw.
In April 1940 the Nazis started to enclose the Jewish area of Warsaw with a wall. Ethnic Poles had to move out, while the city’s Jews were made to move in. By October a small section of the city had been closed off, and it had become home to as many as 400,000 Jews. The Warsaw Ghetto covered less than 800 acres.
Ten-foot walls surrounded the ghetto, which became entirely isolated in November 1940. Escapees faced summary execution, but staying meant enduring disease and starvation. The ration of food for Jews dropped to fewer than 200 calories a day, and epidemics of typhus became rampant among the weakened inhabitants of the ghetto.
People were left with no choice but to smuggle in food. Kids would sneak in and out of the Warsaw Ghetto, in fact, hauling back nourishment for the starving thousands inside. The inhabitants also worked in secret to make things that could be sold to non-Jews outside so that there would be enough money for food. The Nazis didn’t care that people were starving: indeed, it was the whole point of the restricted rations.
When Sendler saw the dreadful conditions that faced the Jewish people of Warsaw, she became determined to do something to help. She joined the Council for Aid to Jews, or Zegota, which the Polish resistance had founded. Sendler took responsibility for rescuing children, a job that became even more pressing as the Germans started to ship Jews out to Treblinka, the dreaded concentration camp.
Many of the Ghetto’s Jews had met their end in that camp before Zegota could help them. But there were still plenty of people desperate for help. The organization aided them in hiding from the Nazis, finding them places to stay safe and paying for their living while they did.
Sendler wasn’t a stereotypical resistance fighter, though. Not even 5 feet tall, she had a warm and lively personality. But her beautiful face and broad smile masked a steely determination. And when tested, she would prove equal to anything the Nazis could throw at her.
Years after the war, some American high-school girls, who’d discovered Sendler’s story and would make it into a play named Life In A Jar, asked her where she’d found the courage to do what she did. “My parents taught me that if a man is drowning, it is irrelevant what is his religion or nationality,” she replied. “One must help him.”
At the very start of the war, Sendler had commenced forging documents for her Jewish pals. She ended up making more than 3,000 of them in all, and when the Ghetto’s walls rose, she started providing papers for escapees and others who were in hiding. Sendler also began giving Jews shelter and food.
So, Sendler was more than ready to help children escape from the Ghetto. She would later explain how readily she’d become involved in the efforts to save Jewish kids. “I lost no time in reflecting [on the danger], knowing that I and my heart had to be there, had to be a part of the rescue,” Sendler recalled, according to the Shabad website.
As a member of the welfare department, Sendler could gain access to the Ghetto. She pretended that her aim was to do something about the diseases that were spreading there, which fooled the Germans. But while she was supposed to be checking the Jews for symptoms, she was really helping children to get away.
Aided by other social workers, Sendler began by sneaking out orphans from the streets. And before too long, she was approaching families and suggesting that they let her save their kids, too. She also kept scrupulous lists containing the kids’ and their parents’ details, so that in better times the families might get back together.
A group of 25 people joined Sendler in this mission, with ten of them going into the Ghetto itself at huge personal risk. However, Sendler took even greater risks than any of them, coming out with a child each time that she entered the Ghetto. The danger was huge, and she eventually came under suspicion, having to regularly change her place of residence as nowhere seemed safe.
In October 1943 the net closed around Sendler after someone ratted her out. The Nazis dragged her off to the notorious Pawiak jail and started to torture her for information about Zegota. But even breaking her leg didn’t get them what they wanted. She said nothing, and the Nazis decided to kill her.
However, Zegota members knew Sendler had been captured and somehow got to the guard who was supposed to lead her to her execution. A cash bribe convinced him to instead dump Sendler in some woods, and her friends spirited her away. Thinking she’d been executed, the Nazis subsequently posted her name among lists of people whom the Gestapo had shot.
Sendler now had to avoid being seen by the authorities, of course, but that didn’t stop her from carrying on with helping the people in the Ghetto. Living in the shadows came at a personal cost, though. Sendler couldn’t go to the funeral of her own mother, for example. And she knew all too well what would happen if the Germans ever did find her.
Sendler continued to smuggle the children out. For older kids, she often used a church that formed part of the Ghetto’s border. If the youngster was able to pass as a Christian, they could sneak in the Jewish side and then answer the grilling that the Nazi guards would put them through on the other side. Sendler trained the children well: none was ever caught.
But younger children couldn’t pretend to be Catholic, so Sendler used other methods. She hid children in boxes, for instance, or stuffed them in sacks. Then she could carry them out or conceal them in piles of potatoes on a cart. Perhaps her most audacious scheme was to put a child in a coffin and sneak that past the guards.
Sendler was permitted to take children out in an ambulance if they were sick enough. But she’d also have kids hidden in the vehicle who were perfectly well. Alongside her was a dog, which also played its part. If the children started to cry, and Sendler thought that might lead to them being found, she would tap the dog on its paw, making it bark. The Nazis’ dogs would be set off, and all heck would be let loose, covering any noise from the kids in the process.
Once they were out of the Ghetto, Sendler had friends who would shelter the children. They still weren’t free of danger, of course, but at least they could eat and rest. It was here, too, that Sendler buried the aforementioned lists in the back yard beneath an apple tree.
Sendler had destinations figured out for all the children. The youngest she placed with couples who had no kids of their own. Older children would find short-term foster parents, so that they could gain enough knowledge of Catholicism to fit into religious institutions. However, no one but Sendler knew how many youngsters she saved in this way.
When Sendler convinced the parents of the children to let her save them, they had to accept that this was their kids’ best hope of survival. After the war, Sendler tried to find the families using the lists in her jars. But nearly all of them had perished. Indeed, only one out of every 100 Jews survived the Ghetto.
The baby whom we began Sendler’s story with was Elzbieta Ficowska. Sendler sneaked the child out in a carpenter’s box and found her a home with a comrade. It wasn’t until Ficowska was a teen that she figured out that her “dad” had died a year before her birth. Her mom eventually told her where she’d really come from, but all there was left of her original family was a silver spoon, etched with her birth name and birthdate.
With so many Jewish people owing their lives to Sendler, it’s no surprise that she would subsequently be given honors by Jewish organizations. Yad Vashem dubbed her Righteous Among the Nations in 1965, and in 1991 Israel made her an honorary citizen. Poland also honored her with the nation’s highest accolade and celebrated her as a national hero.
In 2007 the president of Poland, Lech Kaczynski, spoke before a session of his country’s parliament’s upper house and said that Sendler had been put forward for the Nobel Peace Prize. He acclaimed her as a “great heroine who can be justly named for the Nobel Peace Prize. She deserves great respect from our whole nation,” according to the Auschwitz.dk website.
Moreover, Ficowska would share with the parliament some words that Sendler had written: “Every child saved with my help is the justification of my existence on this Earth, and not a title to glory. Over a half-century has passed since the hell of the Holocaust, but its specter still hangs over the world and doesn’t allow us to forget.”
Indeed, Sendler would accept no praise for her heroism. She could only think about the children whom she had been unable to save. “I could have done more,” she added. “This regret will follow me to my death.” But those people she did rescue didn’t necessarily agree. Many stayed in contact with her, in fact, treating her as part of their own family, someone whom they could trust and rely on for a mother’s love.
The war left its mark on Sendler, who retained an overwhelming fear of it happening all over again. “My mother never bought anything,” her daughter Janka would tell U.K. newspaper the Daily Mail. “She thought possessions were pointless because they would be destroyed if war came again. So it was my dad who had to buy books for us to read, plates for the kitchen.”
Regardless whether Sendler thought that she should receive any credit for her deeds, there are many who are alive today only because of her actions. She remembered a call she’d taken when her face had featured in a newspaper story about her. “A man, a painter, telephoned me. ‘I remember your face,’ he said,” Sendler recalled. “‘It was you who took me out of the ghetto.’” Those simple words stand as an epitaph for a true hero of World War Two.