You may never have heard of her, but Irena Sendler was a hero. Born in Poland in 1910, this nurse and social worker, who lived in Warsaw at the outbreak of World War II, saw what was being done to Jewish people and decided she had to act. Though she was not Jewish herself, she understood that the things that were happening, like forcing Jewish people to live in ghettos, was wrong.
She already had a job working for the Welfare Department when the Nazis first invaded Poland in 1939. Even though it was illegal to help Jews (and would be punishable by death by 1941) Irena helped anyway. Her first action was to convince a group of her co-workers to create fake papers for Jewish families. These would allow those families to escape the ghettos and transportation to concentration camps. From 1939 to 1943, she and her colleagues created over 3000 false papers for Jewish families.
Sometime in 1943, Irena joined the Zegota, an underground group that resisted the Germans and helped Jewish people escape the Nazis. She became head of the Jewish children’s section of this group because of her connections through her job. Because she was an employee of the Social Welfare Department, she had special permission to enter the Warsaw ghetto. She visited often, always wearing a yellow Star of David badge to show her solidarity with the Jewish people. Though ostensibly there to check for signs of typhus among the inhabitants of the ghetto, she used her time there to accomplish something truly amazing.
While on her rounds in the ghetto, Irena would smuggle small children and infants out. She secreted them out in suitcases, boxes, and sometimes ambulances if she had access to a willing driver. By these means, she personally smuggled out over 400 Jewish children. In total, Zegota saved over 2500 children from the ghettos and worse fates.
These smuggled children would be placed with Christian Polish families or with other Catholic religious organizations. The children were given Christian names and taught about the Christian religion in case they were ever questioned. While this was necessary to save them, Irena was worried about the loss of their Jewish identities. For this reason, she kept careful track of each child’s real name and where they were located, so they could return to their religion and heritage after the war.
Irena suffered greatly for her cause, too. In 1943, she was arrested by the Gestapo. Before they took her, she managed to get the list of children’s names to a friend. Had the Germans discovered this, they could have found them all and sent them to camps. The list was saved, but Irena was not so lucky. She was beaten so badly while being questioned that both of her feet and legs were broken. She was sentenced to death, but her friends in Zegota saved her by bribing her prison guards.
Despite grave danger to herself, she returned to Warsaw after her ordeal and worked as a nurse under a fake name. She continued to help Jewish people during this time, as well.
When the war was over, she gave the list with the children’s names to a committee that was handling family reunification. Sadly, nearly all of the parents of the children had been killed or gone missing.
Irena lived a long life, dying at age 98 in 2008. In her life after the war, she resisted communism and supported Jewish rights. She was never really recognized for her humanitarian efforts, though, because of the Soviet Union’s takeover of Poland. She was, however, made an honorary citizen of Israel in 1991. She was also honored in her final years by several national governments, including, finally, her own.