She was just an ordinary nurse, but she saved over 2,500 children from certain death. When she was alive, she used to blame herself: “What I did was not enough, because I might have been able to save more people.”

Irena Sendler (Poland) on Christmas Eve of 1944. (Wikimedia Commons CC0)

The compassionate nurse

Irena Sendler was born in Warsaw, Poland, in 1910. Her father was the only doctor in a small town. He died when she was only 7 years old after being infected from a typhoid patient he was treating. He once told young Irena: “If you see people drowning, even if you can’t swim, you must try your best to save them.”

It was his simple statement and spirit of rescuing others that inspired her throughout her life.

Irena Sendler (Wikimedia Commons CC0)

In September of 1939, the Nazi army occupied Warsaw. 450,000 Jews, accounting for more than a third of the city‘s population, were isolated in a ghetto the same size as Central Park in New York. At that time, Sendler was a nurse and had a pass to go in and out of the ghetto. She took this chance to smuggle in a constant supply of clothes, food, and medicine to the trapped Jews.

The silent hero

Homeless children in the Warsaw Ghetto. (nieznany/unknown/Wikimedia Commons CC0)

As the months passed, the situation became ever direr as thousands of Jews were transferred to the death camps. Sendler refused to stand by in this terrible situation and she helped create a “network” to liberate Jewish children, making use of her medical credentials to gain access to restricted areas.

For 18 consecutive months, she risked her life, going in and out of the ghetto to help children escape.

Despite that, many Jewish families were afraid to send their children with Sendler and her comrades in the Polish resistance. The first question they always asked was: “What guarantee could she give that their children would survive?”

She could only answer them honestly: Nothing. She herself did not know whether she would survive the increasingly deadly Nazi occupation.

In such a life-threatening situation without any guarantee, Sendler managed to hide more than 2,500 Jewish children on covered stretchers and inside suitcases and boxes. She even had these children disguise themselves as infectious patients in order to carry them silently to the church by ambulance.

Sixty years later, Sendler still had nightmares of what she experienced that year. She recalled: “There were families who let us take their children away, but some told us to come back in a few days. When we came back, they had been taken to the death camps.”

Child survivors of Auschwitz. (Alexander Voronzow and others in his group, ordered by Mikhael Oschurkow, head of the photography unit/Wikimedia Commons CC0)

Even the children “lucky” enough to be rescued still faced death at any time, since they could be denounced by the non-Jewish population in Warsaw. Out of worry for their own safety, every citizen had to consider the benefits of becoming an informer.

Every day, the Gestapo searched all over the place to find Jews who had escaped the ghetto.

Bold attempts

To protect these escaped children, Sendler and her fellow resistance fighters worked day and night to quickly fabricate more than 3,000 sets of fake papers, including birth certificates with a Catholic priest’s signature and ID cards signed by senior government officials.

She also trained the children to memorize their new names and taught them common prayers in order to avoid their true identities being revealed. Every child on the road could be questioned by Gestapo at any time; if they did not know their Catholic prayers, they could be killed on the spot.

Jewish families fleeing the front (Walter, Bernhard/Wikimedia Commons CC0)

In Warsaw at that time, anyone caught hiding Jews would be killed. So would all their family members.

It was in these terrible circumstances, in 1943, that Sendler was denounced by an informer and arrested. During interrogation, the Gestapo tortured her and even broke her leg, but failed to extract any valuable information.

Furious at failing to find anything out from her, the Nazis decided to execute the nurse. Fortunately, Polish resistance members managed to pay a bribe to get a military pass for her rescue.

Upon rescue, Sendler hurriedly resumed her rescue operations, and carefully recorded all personal information of the Jewish children who were saved. She buried jars containing their name tags under the trees in her neighborhood so that, after the war, those children could be reunited with any surviving family members.

Sendler and the children she saved

In 1945, the Nazis were driven out of Poland by the Allied armies and Sendler dug up the name tags, attempting to return the children to their parents. Sadly, very few were ever able to find any family that escaped the camps alive.

The victims of the death camps. (Ernst Hofmann or Bernhard Walte/ Wikimedia Commons)

From then on, Sendler lived a normal life for 54 years, without saying a word about how she had saved more than 2,500 children.

The almost forgotten story

In 1999, four high school students in Kansas discovered the name Irena Sendler in an article called “Another Schindler” while selecting a subject for their history assignment. It only took one sentence to capture their attention: “She saved more than 2,500 children.”

“It was so strange,” they said. “Schindler saved 1,100 Jews, while Sendler saved 2,500 people. Why hadn’t we heard her name before?” the students pondered. “Was the figure of 2,500 a misprint?”

They immediately went online to look for Irena Sendler, but the result only showed the same sentence from the same website. When they contacted Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Israel, they too could not provide any further information about Sendler.

Finally, the students received amazing news from Yad Vashem’s research team. Sendler was still alive, 90 years old, and living in Warsaw, Poland.

Thanks to these students’ efforts, Sendler’s incredible story finally came to light.

Belated honors

Sendler’s bravery and wisdom not only touched the American people but also helped Poland rediscover one of its great heroes.

At the nursing home in Warsaw where she lived, the Polish president and his wife visited Sendler in person. The war hero also received many belated honors for her rescue and resistance efforts.

Sendler being visited by the people she saved, and their children (Mariusz Kubik/Wikimedia Commons)

In 2003, Pope John Paul II personally wrote to Sendler, extolling her extraordinary deeds in wartime.

In October 2003, she was awarded the Order of the White Eagle. Her image was also printed on Polish commemorative coinage in 2009.

On July 30, 2006, at the age of 96, Sendler was awarded an honorary medal at a Memorial Ceremony held in Munich, Germany. That event also provided the unique chance for the Jewish children of the Warsaw Ghetto to be reunited with the woman they owed their lives to.

Elzbieta Ficowska,  rescued by Sendler when she a newborn baby, said: “Ms. Sendler did not only save us but also saved our children and grandchildren.”

On May 12, 2008, Irena Sendler quietly drew her last breath at age 98.

(Jake/Flickr)
Sendler’s funeral, a national day of mourning for Poland (Mariusz Kubik/Wikimedia Commons)

Her final words touched many hearts: “I have never considered myself a hero,” she said. “The Jewish children that I saved were the testament for my being in this world. But it is not worth praise. On the contrary, I always blame myself that what I did was not enough.”

“I might have been able to save more people,” she continued, her extraordinary humility shining through until the very end. “This regret  will stay with me to the end of my life.”