The story of Oskar Schindler, who saved the lives of 1,200 Jews during World War II, is known to everyone, but a social worker saved 2,500 Jewish children in Warsaw, and remains relatively unknown. Irena Sendler was born near Warsaw in 1910. Her father, a doctor whose treated impoverished Jews, died from typhus contracted from his patients when Irena was only seven, but his influence on her was profound. She later said, ‘I was taught that if you see a person drowning, you must jump into the water to save them, whether you can swim or not.’
During World War II, Irena worked for the Warsaw Social Welfare Department but soon began helping Jewish families by giving them clothing, medicine and money, as well as leading a group that provided Jews with false documents. This was a hugely risky undertaking: assisting Jews in German-occupied Poland was punishable by death. In 1942, the Nazis herded 500,000 Jews into a 16-block sealed-off area, known as the Warsaw Ghetto, where they awaited death in the Treblinka camp. Conditions in the Ghetto were appalling – 5,000 people died each month from starvation and disease. Irena was so shocked by the conditions that she joined Zegota, the underground organization that helped Jews. She obtained a permit to enter the Ghetto to check for signs of typhus, and became the prime mover in a remarkable operation to rescue children. A baby was smuggled out in the bottom of a tool box. Larger children were taken out in coffins, body bags, potato sacks and suitcases; others escaped through the sewer system. An ambulance driver kept a dog beside him in the passenger seat, and trained it to bark to cover any sounds the children made. Irena was a mother herself, and found the task of persuading families to part with her children horrendous. But she successfully placed children with Polish families, orphanages and convents, and the network ultimately saved 2500 children.
Like the celebrated Schindler, Irena kept a record of the old and new identities of all the children she smuggled out. But the Nazis became aware of Irena’s activities and in October 1943 she realized that the house was surrounded by the Gestapo. Thinking only of her list, she gave it to her colleague, who hid it in her underwear. Irena was imprisoned and tortured but despite having her legs and feet broken, she refused to betray her comrades or the children. She was sentenced to death by firing squad but Zegota saved her by bribing the guards on the way to her execution. She returned to her work under a new identity and managed to evade the Nazis for the rest of the war. Her first priority, however, was to safeguard her list, which she buried in a jar under a tree in her neighbour’s back yard. She dug it up after the war ended, with the intention of reuniting the children with their families, but most had been killed during the Holocaust.
Irena was imprisoned from 1948-49 and brutally interrogated by the communist secret police, and as a result gave birth prematurely to a son, who did not survive. She later became a teacher and vice-director of several medical schools, and was also active in social work programs. She founded orphanages and care centres, as well as a centre for prostitutes. However, her public support for Israel in the 1967 Israeli-Arab War forced her into retirement. In 1980 she joined the Solidarity movement. She died in 2008, aged 98.
Irena never thought of herself as a hero and didn’t seek credit for her actions “I could have done more,” she said. “This regret will follow me to my death.” In fact, her achievements went unnoticed until 1999, when a group of students in Kansas discovered her story and turned it into a short play, entitled ‘Life in a Jar’. Since then she has received Poland’s highest honour, the Order of the White Eagle, and has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times.