We are putting the spotlight on women who have paved the way – the bold and the brave – and we know there are and can be many more of them.
We are pushing for #MoreWomenMorePeace.
During the Second World War, many people risked their lives to commit heroic deeds by saving Jews from the Nazi Holocaust. After the war, many of these heroes were acknowledged for their rescue efforts, but not all.
With remarkable bravery, Irena Sendler saved 2 500 children from being sent to certain death in infamous places such as Treblinka, Poniatowa, Majdanek or Trawniki.
However, despite her boundless courage, her story remained virtually unknown for many years.
Sendler was a Polish Catholic social worker who started getting involved in the resistance movement shortly after Germany’s occupation of Poland. Not long after the Nazi invasion, the majority of Poland’s Jews were confined to various ghettos. The largest one was in Irena’s home town, Warsaw, where nearly 500 000 people were held. Overcrowding and overpopulation in the ghetto led to rapid spread of diseases, especially typhus. As the Nazis were frightened that they would be infected, they allowed Sendler and ten others access to vaccinate and treat the sick.
Sendler realised fairly quickly that most of the Jews, even the very youngest ones, were being transferred to the Treblinka extermination camp. Her revulsion against the Nazis was far more powerful than her fear of being killed, and she decided to become actively involved. By wearing the Star of David on her right sleeve, Sendler embarked on a risky action to save Jewish children. This rescue mission would eventually be named ‘Jolanta’.
To successfully rescue children from the ghetto, she and her helpers had to be exceedingly inventive. The most effective method was to sedate the children and carry them out of the ghetto in sacks. This way, the Nazis believed that the children were the victims of typhus, which meant that they willingly approved their removal. The children were also smuggled out via sewers, or via cellar tunnels in the houses adjacent to the ‘Aryan’ side of the town. Another method was to hide sedated children in cardboard boxes that were then placed under the seats in the morning tram that ran through the ghetto.
Sendler also provided each child with a completely new identity. To keep track of their Jewish origin, she wrote down the new – and the old – name on small scraps of paper that she hid in glass jars and buried in one of her helper’s gardens. Her hope was that the children would be reunited with their parents after the war, and the scraps of paper were the only remaining proof of their background.
However, the rescue operations did not always go as planned:
“We sometimes had to leave those unfortunate families without taking their children from them. I’d go back there the next day and often found that everyone had been taken… to the death camps.”
The situation was also agonising for the many children that Sendler was able to save, as many of them were forced to flee to other countries.
Sendler, too, paid a high price for her courage. The Nazis brought her to the notorious Pawiak Prison, where she was brutally tortured and had both her arms and legs broken during interrogation. Nevertheless, thanks to her friends in the resistance movement, she was able to escape in the end. She was also persecuted for many years after the war by UB, the communist secret police in Poland. In spite of this, Sendler never hesitated to carry on with her efforts to reunite the Jewish children with their parents. Almost all of the children never saw their families again, as many of their family members perished in Treblinka.
Sendler’s acts of bravery remained forgotten for many years. In 1965, the State of Israel recognised her as Righteous Among the Nations, but Poland’s communist leaders did not allow her to receive the award in Israel. It was not until 2003, when Sendler was awarded the Order of the White Eagle, Poland’s highest honour, that Sendler’s efforts during the Second World War were publicly recognised. With that, she became Poland’s national hero at the age of 92. She was also nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007.
Not all superheroes wear capes – Irena Sendler was just that type of superhero. She risked her life to save 2 500 Jewish children from certain death. These children will always remember their plight, and Sendler’s actions call attention to why it must never be allowed to happen again.
Irena Sendler passed away in early 2008, aged 98 and a true hero.
Written by Linus Erlandsson