October 20, 2019
Irena sat defiantly as her young interrogator paced behind her. He tossed a folder on the table claiming it contained information of numerous people informing on her. Bending down to become face to face, the German sternly again asked her for the names of her associates. Looking straight ahead, Irena recited the false story she rehearsed countless times if ever she found herself in this very predicament.
Unsatisfied with her answers, the Nazis reverted to torture. Breaking both of Irena’s legs and feet, the Nazis showed no mercy to the tiny 4’11’’ woman. However, nothing they did could fracture her gigantic spirit. She refused to reveal the information they wanted. Realizing she was not going to crack, the Germans sentenced Irena to death via a firing squad. Yet Irena knew with her execution was also the end of hope for thousands of children.
Irena Krzyżanowska entered the world on February 15, 1910, in Warsaw, Poland. Her father, Dr. Stanisław Krzyżanowski, taught Irena true compassion towards others, especially Jews who were discriminated against. During World War I, many suffered from typhus. Doctors refused to treat patients with the disease, primarily out of fear of contracting it themselves, but especially if they were of the Jewish faith. However, Dr. Krzyżanowski accepted and cared for the contagious sick people. Unfortunately, he developed typhus himself and died from it in February of 1917.
Despite losing her father at a young age, she continued his compassion when she entered Warsaw University. Anti-Semitism infested Poland, like many European nations, by World War I. High education institutions established Ghetto benches, or segregation policies, separating Jewish students from non-Jewish students in their seating. Not only did Jewish students reject the new policies, so did many Aryan citizens like Irena. She studied several years at the University of Warsaw but never completed her degree. Disciplinary action for defacing the “non-Jewish” designation on her grade card likely contributed to her failure to receive a degree.
Irena married Mieczysław Sendler in 1931, around the time she obtained employment as a social worker with the Warsaw Social Welfare Department. Even before World War II, Irena dedicated time to helping poor and needy Jews. Responsible for running local canteens, Irena included Jews in their aid. To avoid discovery from the state, Irena recorded them under fake Christian names. She also documented them as having typhus or tuberculosis, something the state workers would have wanted to avoid.
By the time Adolph Hitler invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, Irena was a Senior Administrator in the welfare department. (see , , and ) Before the end of the month, her husband, who was part of the organized Polish forces, was captured and spent the entirety of World War II in a German Prisoner of War camp. Meanwhile, Irena joined Żegota, a Polish underground organization which formed to help the Jewish people.
The Nazis established a 1-square mile section in the capital city of Warsaw, called the Warsaw Ghetto, on October 16, 1940. They forced over 450,000 Jews into the restricted area of the city roughly the size of Central Park in New York. A year after occupying Poland, Hitler erected brick and barbed wire walls around the Warsaw Ghetto, the largest Jewish ghetto in Europe during World War II. The ghetto was sealed off on November 15, 1940, and armed guards shot anyone trying to leave the area. Despite such a large population within the walls, the Nazis restricted the amount of food and other supplies allowed in, resulting in thousands of deaths every month from starvation and disease.
After the ghetto was sealed, the Żegota's work was greatly hindered yet more important than ever. Irena used her position in the social welfare department to make her way into the ghetto. Fortunately, her job afforded her the cover she needed to enter without raising suspicions of the Nazi guards. Once inside, she used forged documents to get children out.
The walls extremely hindered the rescue of adults. Therefore, Irena focused on young children and babies when possible, starting with orphans. Once those children were rescued, she and the others in the organization persuaded parents to allow them to remove their children with the honest promise of reuniting them after the war. Understandably, parents were not eager to part with their children. They looked for validation by asking Irena, "Can you guarantee they will live?" With a lump in her throat, she truthfully answered, "I can only guarantee they won't if they stay." She heard the cries in her sleep of the parents and the children as they parted until the day she died.
Several methods were used by the dozen Żegota members who entered the ghetto to sneak the children out. The Nazis believed Jews were dirty and diseased people, so it wasn’t hard to get an ambulance into the ghetto. Children were hidden under the stretchers when the ambulance left. When possible, sick children were legitimately removed on the stretcher while some pretended to be sick to be taken out. Children were placed in suitcases, trunks, and bags and carried out on trollies while others were tucked away in toolboxes and sacks and removed in Irena’s truck. She even trained her dog to sit in the front seat and bark as they entered and exited the gates so as to cover any cries and noises of the children she was rescuing.
A church stood on the border of the ghetto with one door leading to the Aryan side and another leading to the Jewish side, which the Germans “sealed”. If a Jewish child could recite some Christian prayers, they were snuck into the church, given a new identity, and then taken out of the church on the free side.
Irena and other members of Żegota forged thousands of documents, giving the rescued children Christian names and identities. Once removed, the children were placed in the convents, orphanages run by Catholics and other organizations, and other facilities for children. Many were put in Christian households with the understanding it was always the goal to reunite the children with their families after the war. To accomplish this, Irena carefully recorded, in code, their true identities along with their temporary identities. According to Irena, she meticulously documented this on thin tissue paper. For the protection of the Żegota members and the children, and since she spearheaded the movement to save the children, Irena placed the lists in jars and buried them in her backyard.
The Gestapo raided Irena's apartment on October 20, 1943. Earlier that month she had taken command of the Children's Division of Żegota and many neighbors informed on her. Irena, now known with her code name Jolanta within the organization, slipped the lists of children she had to Janina Grabowska, a social welfare colleague. Janina hid them under her clothes as the Nazis searched the apartment, yet they never searched her. Despite ransacking her home, the Germans also missed the forged identification cards and birth certificates as well as money marked for the Żegota hidden underneath Irena's bed. Regardless, she was arrested and hauled off to the Gestapo headquarters where she was interrogated and tortured.
After about a week, Irena was moved to Pawiak prison where the beatings and torture continued while she was put to work in the laundry room. During the interrogations, Irena's legs and feet were broken, yet she never gave them the information they desperately wanted. She valued the lives of the Jewish children over everything else and gladly accepted the violence against herself knowing she was keeping the same treatment from the Jews.
Realizing Irena was not going to break, the Nazis sentenced her to death by firing squad and removed her with other sentenced prisoners to another location on November 13. What Irena didn't know was leaders in the Żegota had bribed one of the German guards. While on her way to her death, she was instead released.
Irena quickly went into hiding like the children she rescued, yet her work continued. By the end of the war, she and her Żegota friends rescued over 2,500 Jewish children.
Starting in July of 1942, Shutzstaffel, or SS, leader Heinrich Himmler ordered the Warsaw Jews be relocated in the Treblinka death camp, while telling them they were going to a work camp. (see ) Over 265,000 Jews were relocated before word got back to the ghetto as to their real destination. The small amount of remaining Jews managed to obtain some firearms and fought back on January 18, 1943. They presented an impressive fight and halted deportations for the time being until Himmler hit them hard with massive artillery starting on April 19. The Jews held their own as Nazi firepower slowly destroyed the ghetto. The Germans overtook Warsaw on May 16, emphasizing their victory by demolishing the Warsaw Great Synagogue.
Following the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in the spring of 1943, the surviving 50,000 Jews were still relocated to death or work camps. Approximately 7,000 Jews lost their lives in the uprising with the Nazis losing several hundred. Once the Germans left Poland, Irena dug up her jars of names and began the task of reuniting the children with their parents or living family members. Unfortunately, most of the parents had perished in the Treblinka extermination camp.
The story of Irena remained virtually unknown, especially in the United States, until a project that began in 1999. Thanks to the popularity of the 1993 movie Schindler's List, which conveyed Oskar Schindler’s efforts to save Jews from the Holocaust, people became interested in discovering more such heroes. On September 23, ironically the exact day Irene's son died of heart failure, a group of high school students in Kansas were given a National History Day project, of which they chose Irena's life. As part of their project, they wrote the play Life in a Jar, revealing Irena's story. News reports of a 2001 trip to Poland by the students and the teacher to meet Irena spread throughout the world. As a result, she went from having one website mention to over 500 websites telling of her work. Irena continued to live in Warsaw until her death at the age of 98 on May 12, 2008. She was buried in the Warsaw's Powązki Cemetery.
Irena received several awards including the Order of the White Eagle, Poland’s highest civilian honor. She was named Humanitarian of the Year as well as Righteous Among the Nations, and was made an honorary citizen of Israel. In 2003, she won the Jan Karski award for Valor and Courage and has her own memorial award named after her. In 2009, the TV movie, The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler further uncovered her important accomplishments. Irena was also given a name day, or day to celebrate her life, on October 20.
However, nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, the committee instead decided to award former Vice President Al Gore for his movie An Inconvenient Truth about Global Warming. (see ) The real inconvenient truth is actual heroes are often overlooked for those that seek self-glorification. Irena stated, "Every child saved with my help is the justification of my existence on this Earth, and not a title to glory." It is a beautiful sentiment as to how we should view what we do. While she worked to save physical lives, a very noble objective, we also want to be concerned about the eternal lives of all humans.
Liberty, so many times we wonder why God is allowing bad things to happen in this world. We question him “God, why don't You do something?”. But as Matthew West sings in his song Do Something, God answers, “I did, I created you.” Irena could have carried on with her social work, lamenting about what was happening to the Jews but staying safe by not doing anything. However, she realized she was in a perfect position to make a difference and worked with a handful of others to do just that. In 1939, England’s Nicholas Winton rescued over 600 Jewish children from Prague, Czechoslovakia, with others saving over 10,000 more in Germany and Austria before Hitler ended the Kindertransports upon his invasion of Poland. (see )
Christ started His ministry as one man who revealed His Gospel to 12 men. From those dozen people, sharing the truth with a few people at a time, billions of souls over the past 2,000 years have received the forgiving redemption of Christ. We often miss the forest for the trees because we focus on the minute details without looking at the big picture. However, we are the trees and we must work together to make up the forest.
That’s my 2 cents.
CODE NAME JOLANTA