Her name was Irena Sendler. She was recognized as a hero for helping 2,500 Jews children escaping from Nazi’s clutches, yet she never thought of herself as a hero.
Young Sendler was just 29 when the war broke out across Europe. She was an employee for the Warsaw Welfare Department in Poland at the time of the German invasion of Poland. When the Nazis came to power, she witnessed her Jewish coworkers turned away, dismissed from their jobs after years of services.
In 1943, Sendler joined the Zegota, an underground organization that called itself the Council for Aid to Jews, devoted to helping Jewish people escape the Holocaust. She soon became one of the main activists of the Zegota heading up the Jewish children’s section under the fake name Jolanta.
The job with the Social Welfare Department put Sendler in the perfect position to enter the ghettos, sneak in food, medicine, and clothing. By hiding the children in ambulances, leading them through underground sewer networks and passageways, or wheeling them out in suitcases or boxes, Irena and her team got the children out of the ghetto.
Between the years 1935 and October 1943, over 2,500 children were smuggled out of the ghettos, at least 400 of them by Sendler herself. Once outside of the ghetto’s confines, friends of the Zegota helped her to take them to Christian Polish families and give them Christian names. They were also taught Christian prayers and values in case they were tested.
Sendler’s ultimate goal was to keep the children safe until the end of the war and then return them to their families. So before being arrested by the Gestapo in October 1943, she wrote down careful records of the children’s whereabouts, new names, and given names and kept the lists in jars buried underground.
Sendler was tortured by the Gestapo. They broke both her both legs and feet. But through it all, she managed to keep the names of the children she’d saved and never gave the Gestapo that information.
She even managed to survive being sentenced to death. Fellow members of the Zegota saved her life with a last-minute bribe as the officers of the Gestapo were taking her to her execution.
Irena has received many honors thanks to her humanitarian efforts during the war, including the Gold Cross of Merit and the Order of the White Eagle, Poland’s highest honor. She was remembered as “the female Oskar Schindler.”
For a professor of literature Michal Glowinski, one of the children who Irena rescued and whose name was once inside one of the glass jars, she is undoubtedly a hero. “I think about her the way you think of someone you owe your life to,” he said. In 2008 Irena was able to meet some of the people whose lives she saved all those years ago.
“In the face of today’s indifference, the example of Irena Sendlerowa is very important,” said Elzbieta Ficowska, one of the children who Irena smuggled out of the ghetto at just 5 months old. “Irena Sendlerowa is like a third mother to me and many rescued children.”
Sendler lived to be 98 years old and died in 2008. The lesson Irena left us: “Heroes do extraordinary things. What I did was not an extraordinary thing. It was normal.”
Imagine how many Shoah victims would have lived had there been more individuals like Irena Sendler?