The Irena Sendler: Life in a jar
How could one person save 2,500 children?
Woman hides thousands of children in coffins – then she’s arrested and her dark secret emerges
Irena Sendler was born in Warsaw, Poland on February 15, 1910.
When Irena was only seven years old, her father died of typhus. Irena was just seven years old. She and her mother eventually returned to Warsaw, where Irena completed school and enrolled in Warsaw University.
In those days, there were strict rules dictating the separation of Jewish and non-Jewish students, who were not allowed to sit together in or out of class. Irena refused to obey these rules, and was suspended for one year. She managed to complete her studies, and by September 1939, when the Nazis invaded Poland, she was a social worker employed by the Warsaw Welfare Department.
Those who knew her say that it was always Irena’s nature to help. Though she lost her father at an early age, his dedication to others—reinforced by her mother’s example and words—made a deep impression on her. Though still young, she already had a history of sacrifice on behalf of others, and of defying rising anti-Semitism to reach out to and stand up for Jews.
The years she spent with her father would come to have an enormous influence on her. Her father taught her many things, but one lesson in particular stayed with her for her entire life: always help the needy.
When she grew up, Irena followed in the footsteps of her father, who was a doctor, and became a nurse.
And she later became employed as a social worker in the Warsaw Social Welfare Department, where she helped distribute food and clothing to families in need.
At that time, Jews living in many parts of Europe were being persecuted. But even though Irena was a devout Catholic, she refused to give in to prejudice. She helped several Jewish families, just like she helped everyone else.
Almost as soon as the Nazi occupation began, Irena began making forged documents for Jewish friends. She also offered food and shelter to the increasingly persecuted Jewish population. Then, in 1940, she witnessed the imprisonment of nearly 500,000 Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto—an area the size of New York’s Central Park. She continued making false documents for those who escaped or had gone into hiding and avoided the Ghetto. Between 1939 and 1942 Irena, with the assistance of a few trusted friends, forged over 3,000 documents to save Jewish families.
During the Second World War, the Nazis created the Warsaw Ghetto to intern Jewish families.
It was the largest Jewish ghetto established by the Nazis, and at its peak, around 400,000 Jews were imprisoned within its walls.
Life in the ghetto was characterized by overcrowding, hunger, instability, and disease.
German soldiers threatening women and children with their weapons during the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto
Irena Sendler (Sendlerowa) 29, was just 4′11″ tall, her lively, intelligent black eyes set in a round, smiling face. She was beautiful, and in taped interviews one can see a warm yet quietly determined individual. Still, her appearance more closely resembled a favorite doll than a fearless resistance leader. How did she find the courage to smuggle out living, breathing (and sometimes crying) Jewish children past vicious, heavily armed guards?
Irena, who was concerned with the appalling living conditions, decided to get involved.
In the fall of 1942 two Polish women, Zofia Kossak-Szczucka and Wanda Krahelska-Filipowicz, founded Zegota—the Council for Aid to Jews in Occupied Poland, a branch of the Polish underground.
She joined Zegota, an underground resistance organization in German-occupied Poland that worked to save Jews. Irena realized that she needed to do something—even if it that meant risking her own life. The members of Zegota asked Irena to head the Children’s Department. She readily agreed. “I lost no time in reflecting [on the danger],” she later explained, “knowing that I and my heart had to be there, had to be a part of the rescue.”
Together with her colleagues, Irena started secretly helping Jewish children as many as 25 at one time, Irena began rescuing the children of the Ghetto.
By that time, she was an administrator in the Welfare Department. Taking advantage of both her official position and the Germans’ paranoia of germs, she would go into the Ghetto under the ruse of wanting to stop the spread of disease beyond the ghetto walls. Officially, she was examining Jews for signs of contagious diseases. In reality, she was looking for children to save.
At first, Irena and her helpers took orphans living on the streets of the Ghetto. Later, she would meet with parents and ask them to let her take their children out.
Irena visited many Jewish homes and families, but many mothers refused to surrender their children to a stranger, even if that stranger was well-intentioned and had a plan to free their children. But staying meant certain death, either by being murdered inside its walls or by deportation to concentration camps.
How could one person save 2,500 children from the walled and heavily guarded Ghetto?
“When you look at her,” Conrad told an interviewer, “you can’t imagine how she could walk past the Nazi guards, carrying a child in a gunny sack. How did she do it?”
There were two common routes used to smuggle the children out, through two buildings that straddled the border between the Ghetto and the rest of Warsaw. One building was an old courthouse, the other was a church. Children old enough to be taught some basic Catholic prayers would be sneaked into the church from the Jewish side. Once inside, they would remove their yellow stars and take on their new identities as Polish Catholic children. They would exit through the front door of the church, which was guarded by Nazi soldiers who questioned them when they came out. The Nazis used various tricks to try to catch Jews escaping this way. Irena and her helpers trained the children well—they were never caught coming out of the church with Jewish children.
Younger children could not be rescued through the buildings. Instead, Irena would place them in gunny sacks or toolboxes and carry them out of the Ghetto, or she would hide them under potatoes in a cart. Once, she took a child out concealed in a coffin. On other occasions, she was able to legally take seriously ill children out of the Ghetto in an ambulance. At other times, the ambulance was used to conceal healthy children. She had the assistance of the ambulance driver and of a dog. When the children would start to whimper, and she feared detection, she would hit her dog on his paw, and he would begin to bark. This set off a chain reaction among the Nazis’ dogs, and chaos would erupt. At that point, the Nazis would let her pass.
Once on the other side, she would take the children to the home of her friends, the Piotrowski family, where the children would change their clothing, and have a chance to eat and rest after their dangerous journey. It was also at the Piotrowski home that Irena would secretly bury her lists of names, under an apple tree in their backyard. The Piotrowskis lived across the street from a German barrack. Oftentimes the children would also stay by another friend, Maria Kukulska, until they could be safely moved to what would be their home for the remainder of the war.
The people who helped Irena, twenty-four women and one man, all took tremendous risks. There were even ten who alternated entering the Ghetto with her, but it was Irena herself who entered the Ghetto day after day for eighteen months—and walked out each time with a child. Her life was in constant danger.
Since Nazi surveillance of the ghetto was extensive, Irena was forced to find creative ways to hide the children and smuggle them out.
One method was to pretend that the children were seriously ill and bring them to hospitals outside the ghetto. But as the surveillance increased, Irena had to hide the children in suitcases, garbage bags, and even coffins.
One rescue involved a baby named Eluzina. Irena hid her in a wooden box that was supposed to contain bricks.
The girl, just five months old, was brought to safety. And the only thing she had with her was a small silver spoon that her mother had hidden in her clothes.
“The names of the saved children, I wrote down on thin tissue paper. There were two identical lists in two bottles,” recalled Irena. “When I once had the list at home, that same night the Gestapo arrived. Fortunately, one of her liaison girls demonstrated her presence of mind and hid the list in her underwear. After that, for safety reasons, she never kept the lists at home.”
Ultimately, the Nazis began to suspect her. She changed her address numerous times, but continued her work. Her careful list-making almost betrayed her.
More than 2,500 children were saved in this way. Irena kept a record of all the children she brought to safety, and the list was hidden in cans in a neighbor’s garden.
Irena’s plan went perfectly until one day, everything came crashing down on her. The Nazis discovered what she was doing and arrested her.
Tragically, Irena was arrested by the Germans on October 20, 1943—five months after the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto. Her address had been revealed by an informer.
Irena was sent to prison, where she was tortured by the Gestapo.She was tortured and beaten for several days; one leg and one foot were fractured. But despite the pain and torture, she refused to give up any information about the children or their families or the names of anyone in the Resistance.
Eventually, the Nazis sentenced her to death. But fate had other plans for Irena. She was scheduled to be executed, but members of Zegota found out and bribed a guard to instead leave her in the woods, where they found and rescued her. Her name was printed on public lists of those who had been shot by the Gestapo, and she spent the rest of the war in hiding.
After the war, she worked to track down the children and reunite them with relatives, but nearly all of them were by then orphans. Copies were made of the lists and given to officers of Zegota, who helped Irena search, but few relatives were ever found. Only one percent of the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto survived the war.
The Communists in Poland branded Irena a subversive for her work with Zegota, and she was largely unknown and unappreciated except among the survivors themselves. The children kept in touch with her over the years. Many, including Elzbieta, considered her a mother figure and would visit her regularly. It was Irena to whom they would turn when they needed the advice or simply the love of a parent. They were instrumental in having her recognized by Yad Vashem, twice. She was given the distinction of Righteous Gentile in 1965, and a tree was planted in her honor in 1983. Irena traveled to Israel for the tree planting, where she reunited with some of the children she’d saved, and enjoyed a visit to an elementary school in Tel Aviv. She even learned some Hebrew in preparation for the trip, but was so emotional that she relied on a translator in the end.
Irena had also received support from the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous in New York City.
You have changed the world
In Poland the students visited Irena, performed the play and met with government officials. National and international media covered their visit, breaking nearly sixty years of silence. That first visit took place in May 2001, and since then, Holocaust education in Poland has changed dramatically. Other Polish rescuers came forward with their stories. The students have made five trips to Poland, meeting with Irena each time and performing for schools and community organizations. Thanks in large part to their efforts to spread the word about Irena’s work, Irena was given numerous awards—including the Order of the White Eagle, Poland’s highest honor. In 2003 she won the Jan Karski award for Valor and Courage, having been nominated by the students and Norman Conrad, and by Stefanie Seltzer, president of the World Federation of Jewish Survivors of the Holocaust. In 2007, she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. In April 2009, the Audrey Hepburn Foundation posthumously awarded Irena Sendler its 2009 Humanitarian Award.
Yet it was not for her own sake that Irena was so pleased with the recognition. Rather, it was the fact that the work of Zegota was finally being recognized, and even more, for the way in which hearing about Zegota has changed Polish perceptions of their own history. By giving Poles a hero, the students have made it possible to discuss both the good and the evil of those years. Irena’s story, the play, and some of the 4,000 pages of primary source material collected by the students about Irena are being used in schools and colleges in Poland and America. And for the past six years, the Irena Sendler Award has been encouraging and awarding projects aimed at teaching tolerance. Each year, an outstanding teacher in America and in Poland are chosen.
Irena Sendler in 2007
Early on, Irena had written to them, “My emotion is being shadowed by the fact that my co-workers have all passed on, and these honors fall to me. I can’t find words to thank you, for my own country and the world to know of the bravery of the rescuers . . . Before the day you had written Life in a Jar, the world did not know our story; your performance and work is continuing the effort I started over fifty years ago.”
Irena’s last words to the students, on May 3, 2008, were, “You have changed Poland, you have changed the United States, you have changed the world. I love you very, very much.”
Irena passed away on May 12, 2008, and was interred in Warsaw’s Powazki cemetery—a place reserved for the elite among Poland’s artists, writers, scholars and war heroes. Visitors to Life in a Jar’s website report that there among the actresses, Nobel laureates, and other heroes, the grave with the most candles is Irena’s.
The Polish author of a well-known memoir of the Holocaust, who was one of the children rescued by Irena, called the Kansas students “rescuers of the rescuer; rescuers of Irena’s story.” The Polish press made this story international news. Irena’s story was finally reaching others and, in 2007, she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
The Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes was founded to honor Irena Sendler and encourage students to discover and share the stories of Unsung Heroes like her. Irena passed away on May 12, 2008, a date that coincides with the birthday of Megan Stewart, who has portrayed Irena for many years and is now LMC’s Program Director. Returning to Poland for one last visit, the Life in a Jar cast saw Irena a week before she died. Her final words to them were, “You have changed Poland; you have changed the United States; you have changed the world. I love you very, very much.”