Never underestimate one good person’s power, even in the face of an unspeakable evil.
Irena Sendler, from Poland, risked her own life to help Jews escape from the Nazi clutches when war broke out across Europe.
Irena was just 29 when war broke out. The young nurse was hired by the Warsaw Municipality’s Welfare Department in Poland, placing her in the perfect position to secretly help the country’s targeted Jewish population.
The Nazis corralled the Jews into the Warsaw Ghetto in 1940, an area equal to less than an acre and a half, and home to more than 400,000 Jews. The ghetto was built to segregate Jews from the general population, subjecting them to squalid, crowded conditions, and minimal rations inside their walls. In 1942, almost all the people in the ghetto were sent to concentration camps to be executed.
As word came out around Warsaw about the incarceration and killing of Jews in the ghetto, Irena realized she had to do something to help. As a social worker, she used her credentials to obtain a special permit granting her entry to the ghetto, so she secretly tried to smuggle children out of the ghetto. Between 1935 and October 1943, Irena helped more than 2,500 Jewish children flee the Warsaw Ghetto in order to avoid being sent to concentration camps in the Nazis.
Irena and her team got the terrified children out of the ghetto by hiding them in ambulances, leading them through underground sewage networks and tunnels, and wheeling them out in suitcases or crates. They were hidden with Polish sympathizers once the children were out of the ghetto Irena.
She quickly became one of Zegota’s leading supporters, a clandestine group that called itself the Council for Aid to Jews.
In October 1943 the Gestapo caught wind of what Irena was doing. Once she learned that they were coming for her, she wrote down the names of the saved children on cigarette papers, sealed them into two separate glass bottles and buried them in the garden of a friend. In an effort to help the children reunite with their parents, these containers would be dug up later.
Sadly, before these reunions could ever take place, many of the families had died in the camps.
After the Gestapo arrested Irena she was subjected to unspeakable torture, including having both legs and feet broken. She never admitted to her alleged crimes, however, and she never gave up the names of the children she had rescued. She was scheduled to be executed, but on that day, the Zegota bribed German officials with a cash-filled rucksack, so they knocked her unconscious and left her on a roadside.
Irena was remembered as the real hero after the battle. She lived to be 98, and she never thought of herself as a hero in all that time.
“I was brought up to believe that a person must be rescued when drowning, regardless of religion and nationality,” she said simply. “The term ‘hero’ irritates me greatly. The opposite is true. I continue to have pangs of conscience that I did so little.”