Irene Sendler was born in Warsaw and grew up in Otwock, which is not far from the capital of Poland. She had been baptized as a Roman Catholic but developed a fondness for the Jewish people. Her father was a doctor, and most of his patients were Jewish. Her father often treated the poor Jewish people of Otwock without pay. It was from him that Irena inherited her left-wing political view.
When Irena went to university, her activism disrupted her studies. He didn’t accept the system of separate seating for Jewish students, which was common in the late 1930s. She also damaged her grade card, so it wouldn’t show that she was Roman Catholic and not Jewish. This resulted in frequent disciplinary actions against her. Eventually, Irena decided to leave her school, and she started attending the Free Polish University, where others shared her views. It was there that she started working with social workers who later became her allies when helping Jews escape the Nazi terror.
Marriage and War
While in school, Irena met and married a man named Mieczyslaw Sendler. Sadly, when the war started, her husband was called away. He ended up in prison, and Irene knew that he wouldn’t want her to wait around for his return. He would have wanted her to do what she could to help others. Irena’s husband wasn’t the only person captured. Over 400,000 Poles were taken when the Germans invaded in September 1939, and over 60,00 died. Within six weeks, the Nazis and the Soviets took over the nation.
When the Germans entered Warsaw, they found that is was home to more than a quarter-million Jews. They started making things difficult for the Jewish population and created laws and boycotts to make their lives difficult. When the Nazis took control of Poland, the Jewish people were deemed to be different from Germans biologically and called sub-humans. In the beginning, they forced the Jewish into forced labor and made them wear distinctive clothing. In 1940, they were no longer allowed to gather and pray. Over time, every Jewish person in Poland was relocated to Warsaw. In April 1940, an area of Warsaw was blocked off with a wall. Over 400,000 Jews were sent to live in an area that was just 800 acres.
The Nazis put up 10-foot walls around the ghetto in November 1940. Anyone caught trying to escape would be executed. Those who stayed within the walls were subjected to disease and starvation. Each person in the ghetto was only given 200 calories a day. As an epidemic of typhus became rampant, the Jews were dying. Things got so bad that children had to smuggle in food. They would come and go from the ghetto, hauling back nourishment for their families. The Nazis didn’t care that the Jews in the ghetto were starving, because that was the idea.
When Irena heard about the horrible conditions that the Jewish faced in Warsaw, she wanted to help. She joined a group that worked to help the Jews called Zegota. Irena wanted to help the children in the ghetto, and she had to work fast because the Germans had already started sending the Jews to Treblinka, which is a horrible concentration camp. The Jews that weren’t saved by Zegota died there. It was up to Zegota to protect the people from the ghetto, hiding them, and keeping them safe. At the beginning of the war, Irena began forging fake documents for her Jewish friends. She made over 3,000 when the walls came up. After, she started providing papers for those who managed to escape the ghetto or those who were hiding. She also offered the Jews food and shelter.
Saving the Children
Irena knew that the only way to save the children was to take them from their families to safety. The parents knew that it was the only way for their children to live, so they agreed to let her take them. When she took the children to safety, she kept meticulous records. She wanted to make sure that there would be a way for the families to reunite when things got better. Irena put herself at significant risk to help. Each time she came out of the ghetto, she came out with a child. To keep herself safe, she had to move often so that she couldn’t be found.
In October 1943, someone ratted Irena out for the work that she was doing. The Nazis dragged her to the Pawiak jail and tortured her for information about Zegota. Even after they broke her leg, she refused to speak. When they realized that they weren’t going to get anything out of her, the Nazis decided to kill her. Fortunately, members of Zegota found out that she had been captured, and they offered the guards a cash bride to dump her in the woods. When they did, Irena’s friends took her away. The Nazis thought that she had been executed; her name was added to a list of the people who the Gestapo had shot.
Living In the Shadows
Irena refused to stop helping the Jews, so she had to work in the shadows. When her mother died, she couldn’t even attend the funeral. When she smuggled the younger children out, she gave them to families who didn’t have children. The older children were taken somewhere to learn how to pass as a Christian. She made sure to train the children well.
The Apple Tree
When Irena got the kids to safety, she would write the child’s name along with the parent’s name on a slip of paper, and she put it in a jar. She kept the jar full of names underneath an apple tree. Irena saved so many children during this time that in 1965, Yad Vashem dubbed her Righteous Among the Nations. In 1991, Israel made her an honorary citizen. Poland honored her with the nation’s highest honor and celebrated her a national hero. In 2007, the President of Poland put her up for a Nobel Prize, which she more than deserved. This Woman Saved Thousands Of Kids From The Nazis – And She Did It In The Most Extraordinary Way.