The Nearly Forgotten Story of Irena Sendler
Memorial ceremonies recently held in remembrance of the Warsaw ghetto uprising’s 70th anniversary have stirred up interest in the historical events of the era, including lesser-known episodes.
One wartime experience involved a woman who was responsible for saving over 3000 Jews. Incredibly her story was almost lost to history until a group of Kansas high school students researched and publicized the affair in 1999.
Irena Sendler was a young Polish social worker who joined the Polish underground in 1939, immediately after the Nazis invaded Poland. During those early days of occupation Sendler helped Jews fleeing the Nazis and it is estimated that she assisted over 500 Jewish men, women and children in this effort.
In 1940 the Zagota underground group was formed so that members could assist the Jews in a more organized fashion. As part of that group Sendler was given forged documents that identified her as a nurse and she entered the Warsaw ghetto as an "expert" on infectious diseases. She was allowed to bring in food and medicine but her true acts of mercy were in what she removed from the ghetto.
Sendler quickly realized that the Nazis intended to murder all of the ghetto residents and she began to smuggle children out of the ghetto, sometimes under tram seats and other times in toolboxes, suitcases and even in bags under barking, snarling dogs. She also learned about the sewer system and other underground exits and brought children out through these tunnels. Many of the children were orphans but others had living parents and Sendler went door to door in the ghetto, to convince the parents that leaving the ghetto was the only hope that the children had of survival.
Sendler recorded all of the names of the children on scraps of tissue paper together with the names of the families, convents or orphanages in which they were placed. Sendler hoped that the children could later be reunited with their families, though in the end, only a few of the parents survived the war. Through her efforts however, many of the other children were brought to Israel to live as Jews.
Sendler was captured by the Gestapo in 1943 but she did not divulge any information about the whereabouts of the children, even under torture. Zagota members were able to bribe the guards and secure her release and Sendler lived out the remainder of the war in hiding.