Irena Sendler, a humble woman who helped save 3,000 Jewish children from the Nazis.
On September 1, 1939, the Nazis invaded Poland and quickly and brutally crushed everything in their path. Within three weeks, Poland was conquered and a severe Nazi rule began.
The next year the Nazis seized 450,000 Polish Jewish people and set-up the Warsaw Ghetto to house them. The Jews were locked behind seven foot walls with barbed wire across the top and there were armed guards ready to shoot anyone on the spot.
Jewish men, women and children struggled to survive on 200 calories a day (whereas a German ate well over 2,000 calories a day). Starving en masse, many Jews became walking skeletons as thousands of them died.
Packed tightly together in miserable unsanitary conditions and with low resistance from hunger, a typhoid epidemic swept through the ghetto killing 6,000 Jews a month. So many people died that each morning death carts picked up the corpses, which were left naked on the streets.
They were naked because desperate family members stripped them to sell their clothing, hoping to buy more food and medicine that was being smuggled in. Often this money was the difference between life and death.
Then in 1942 the Nazis issued their “Final Solution,” an edict to execute all of the Jews. Hundreds of thousands of Jews were pressed tightly together on trains, with parents holding their children in their arms. They were transported to the Treblinka Extermination Camp.
By January, 1943 there were just 60,000 Jews left in the ghetto. As the Nazis tried to ship them to Treblinka in desperation the Jews began an armed resistance using weapons they had smuggled in. For the next three months, all hell broke loose as the Jewish people fought for their lives.
But in April, a powerful Nazi force invaded the ghetto, blowing it up block by block, as they fired on and killed most of the Jews they encountered. By mid-May the battle was over and what few Jews survived met their deaths in the gas chambers of Treblinka.
This is the setting in which Irena Sendler; a Polish social worker put her life on the line to help as many desperate people as she could. She began shortly after the creation of the Warsaw Ghetto.
Why? Her conscience reminded her of “the horror of life behind the walls,” and she knew she had to help these victims. But if the Nazis caught her, she could be shot dead or jailed and tortured.
Social workers weren’t allowed in the ghetto so she forged identification papers that identified her as a nurse, which let her bring in food, clothing and medicine. In these dire conditions she was an angel of mercy.
But when the Nazis began the “Final Solution,” Irena knew she had to do more. She decided to rescue as many children as she could and soon joined the Zegota, a Polish underground group and she recruited about 25 other women to join her.
She and the other ladies smuggled Jewish children out through secret passage ways such as one that led to the Warsaw Municipal Courts building, located by the ghetto. Some of the Polish police had been bribed to allow them to pass. Other children were smuggled out in sacks, suit cases, boxes or coffins, and babies were sedated so as not to cry.
One of the hardest things for Irena to do was to ask these parents to part 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,” she would say, “was that the children would most likely die if they stayed.”
Once the ladies got the children out, most were given non-Jewish identities and taken to Catholic convents, homes or orphanages. Hoping to reunite them later with their families Irena wrote their real identities on bits of paper and put the paper in jars, which she buried in a garden.
Captured by the Nazis in 1943, Irena was so severely tortured, that in one session they broke her feet and legs. But she would not identify her co-conspirators nor reveal where those jars were.
While being held by her captors, on one occasion Irena and the other ladies were abruptly lined up and every other woman was shot. She still revealed nothing. She survived because a German officer took a bribe from the Polish underground. Once freed, Irena continued her rescue efforts.
When the war ended, Irena dug up the jars so she could find the children and return them to their families. But what she discovered was heart breaking. Most children no longer had families, their families were dead.
But thanks to Irena, about 3,000 Jewish children had been saved. Some were adopted by Polish families, while others were sent to Israel. Today, they and their children and their grandchildren live because Irena believed she could make a difference and was compelled to act.
Recently, at the age of 98, Irena passed away in Warsaw. She is survived by her daughter Janka and by a granddaughter. And she is survived by thousands of Jewish people who owe their lives to her.
Why did she risk her life to save so many strangers? When the Polish government finally honored her actions, Irena replied in a letter to them last year “Every child saved with my help and the help of all the wonderful secret messengers, who today are no longer living, is the justification of my existence on this earth, and not a title to glory.”