You’ve Heard of Schindler, but What about Sendler?

March 08, 2010
Irena Sendler

Irena Sendler (photo from Life in a Jar: The Irena Sendler Project)

People exhibited the absolute worst and best aspects of human nature during the Holocaust: unfathomable brutality, unwavering bravery. Irena Sendler is one woman who displayed the latter.

Born in 1910, Sendler was a 29-year-old Polish social worker when the Nazis invaded her country. She lived in Warsaw, and when Nazis forced Jews in the area to live in a ghetto, Sendler and her colleagues smuggled in much-needed food and medicine. As social workers, they had legal access to the ghetto and visited it as often as they could.

Realizing the imminent death sentence that children in the ghetto faced, Sendler decided smuggle them out — in gunnysacks, potato sacks, and coffins and by burying them inside loads of goods. Many people helped her, including a mechanic who smuggled one infant out in his toolbox. They disguised the identities of the children and hid them in convents, orphanages, and private homes. When Sendler asked, no one refused to house a child.

By 1943, Sendler and her helpers had smuggled out more than 2,500 Jewish children. Joining forces with the Polish and Jewish Underground, they were able to help protect the children and the children’s caretakers throughout the war.

In 1943, Nazis captured Sendler, imprisoning and torturing her for three months. They broke both of her legs and feet, which left her crippled for life. She refused to release any information, however, so they sentenced her to death. The Polish Underground helped her escape on her execution day, and she assumed a new identity and eluded capture for the duration of the war.

All 2,500 children she helped rescue survived the war. After the war, Sendler dug up jars she had buried that contained slips of paper with each child’s real name. She worked to relocate the children and reunite them with their families. When speaking of her actions, she never sought credit and always mourned that she “could have done more,” saying, “This regret will follow me to my death.”

Her role in saving lives was unknown for decades, but at the end of her life, she began to receive recognition for her amazing feat and bravery. In 2003 she was awarded Poland’s highest distinction, the Order of White Eagle, and she is recognized as a national hero. In 2007 she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Sendler died in 2008. Her legacy lives on today through the 2,500 children she saved and their descendents and through the Irena Sendler Project and a new film, In the Name of Their Mothers: The Story of Irena Sendler.

For International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month, I share her story to help write her contributions to society back into history and to help inspire everyone to always stand up for human dignity and human rights.

By:   |   March 08, 2010

1 Comment

  1. Karen Kirkwood says:

    Thank you so much for recognizing the bravery of Irena Sendler! We stood under a tree at Yad Vashem near Jerusalem last fall that is dedicated to her. The tree is a wonderful and appropriate way to memorialize this remarkable woman.

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