Irena Sendler

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Irena Sendler
Born15 February 1910
Warsaw, Russian partition
Died12 May 2008 (aged 98)
Warsaw, Poland
OccupationSocial worker, humanitarian
ReligionRoman Catholic
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Irena Sendler
Born15 February 1910
Warsaw, Russian partition
Died12 May 2008 (aged 98)
Warsaw, Poland
OccupationSocial worker, humanitarian
ReligionRoman Catholic

Irena Sendler (née Krzyżanowska, AKA in Poland Irena Sendlerowa, Nom de guerre Jolanta; 15 February 1910 – 12 May 2008)[1] was a Polish Catholic social worker who served in the Polish Underground and the Żegota[2][3] resistance organization in German-occupied Warsaw during World War II. Assisted by some two dozen other Żegota members, Sendler smuggled 2,500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto and then provided them with false identity documents and with housing outside the Ghetto, thereby saving those children from being killed in the Holocaust.[4]

The Nazis eventually discovered her activities, tortured her, and sentenced her to death; but she managed to evade execution and survive the war. In 1965, Sendler was recognized by the State of Israel as a Righteous among the Nations. Late in life she was awarded Poland's highest honor for her wartime humanitarian efforts and also was nominated for (but did not win) the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.[5][unreliable source?] She appears on a silver 2009 Polish commemorative coin honoring some of the Holocaust-resisters of Poland.


Early life

Sendler was born as Irena Krzyzanowska on 15 February 1910 in Warsaw. Her father, Stanislaw Krzyzanowski, was a physician. Sendler sympathised with Jews from childhood. Her father died in February 1917 of typhus contracted while treating patients his colleagues refused to treat. Many of those patients were Jews. After his death, Jewish community leaders offered to pay for Sendler's education. She opposed the ghetto-bench system that existed at some prewar Polish universities and as a result she was suspended from Warsaw University for three years.[6]

World War II

During the German occupation of Poland, Sendler lived in Warsaw (prior to that, she had lived in Otwock and Tarczyn while working for urban Social Welfare departments). As early as 1939, when the Germans invaded Poland, she began aiding Jews. She and her helpers created over 3,000 false documents to help Jewish families, prior to joining the organized Żegota resistance and the children's division.[7] Helping Jews was very risky—in German-occupied Poland, all household members risked death if they were found to be hiding Jews, a more severe punishment than in other occupied European countries.

Nazi German poster in German and Polish (Warsaw, 1942) threatening death to any Pole who aided Jews

In August 1943, Żegota (the Council to Aid Jews) nominated her (by her cover name Jolanta[8]) to head its children's section. As an employee of the Social Welfare Department, she had a special permit to enter the Warsaw Ghetto to check for signs of typhus, something the Nazis feared would spread beyond the Ghetto.[9] During these visits, she wore a Star of David as a sign of solidarity with the Jewish people and so as not to call attention to herself.

Jewish children in the Warsaw Ghetto

She cooperated with others in Warsaw's Municipal Social Services department, and the RGO (Central Welfare Council), a Polish relief organization that was tolerated under German supervision. She and her co-workers organized the smuggling of Jewish children out of the Ghetto. Under the pretext of conducting inspections of sanitary conditions during a typhus outbreak, Sendler and her co-workers visited the Ghetto and smuggled out babies and small children in ambulances and trams, sometimes disguising them as packages.[10] She also used the old courthouse at the edge of the Warsaw Ghetto (still standing) as one of the main routes for smuggling out children.[citation needed]

The children were placed with Polish families, the Warsaw orphanage of the Sisters of the Family of Mary, or Roman Catholic convents such as the Little Sister Servants of the Blessed Virgin Mary Conceived Immaculate[11] at Turkowice and Chotomów. Sendler cooperated very closely with social worker and catholic nun, mother provincial of Franciscan Sisters of the Family of Mary - Matylda Getter.[12] She rescued about 2,500 Jewish children in different education and care facilities for children in Anin, Białołęka, Chotomów, Międzylesie, Płudy, Sejny, Vilnius and others.[13] Some children were smuggled to priests in parish rectories. She and her co-workers buried lists of the hidden children in jars in order to keep track of their original and new identities. Żegota assured the children that, when the war was over, they would be returned to Jewish relatives.[14]

In 1943, Sendler was arrested by the Gestapo, severely tortured, and sentenced to death. Żegota saved her by bribing German guards on the way to her execution. She was listed on public bulletin boards as among those executed. For the remainder of the war, she lived in hiding, but continued her work for the Jewish children. After the war, she and her co-workers gathered together all of their records with the names and locations of the hidden Jewish children and gave them to their Zegota colleague Adolf Berman and his employees at the Central Committee of Polish Jews. However, almost all of their parents had been killed at the Treblinka extermination camp or had otherwise gone missing.


Sendler with some people she saved as children, Warsaw, 2005

"Every child saved with my help is the justification of my existence on this Earth, and not a title to glory."[15]

Letter to the Polish Parliament
Irena Sendler in 2005

After the war and the Soviet takeover of Poland, Irena Sendler was persecuted by the communist Polish state authorities for her relations with the Polish government in exile and with the Home Army. During this period she miscarried her second child.

In 1965, Sendler was recognized by Yad Vashem as one of the Righteous among the Nations. She also was awarded the Commander's Cross by the Israeli Institute. Only in that year did the Polish communist government allow her to travel abroad, to receive the award in Israel.

In 2003, Pope John Paul II sent Sendler a personal letter praising her wartime efforts. On 10 October 2003 she received the Order of the White Eagle, Poland's highest civilian decoration, and the Jan Karski Award "For Courage and Heart," given by the American Center of Polish Culture in Washington, D.C. She was also awarded the Commander's Cross with Star of the Order of Polonia Restituta (November 7, 2001).

On 14 March 2007, Sendler was honored by Poland's Senate. At age 97, she was unable to leave her nursing home to receive the honor, but she sent a statement through Elżbieta Ficowska, whom Sendler had helped to save as an infant. Polish President Lech Kaczyński stated she "can justly be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize." On 11 April 2007, she received the Order of the Smile as the oldest recipient of the award.

In May 2009, Irena Sendler was posthumously granted the Audrey Hepburn Humanitarian Award.[16] The award, named in honor of the late actress and UNICEF ambassador, is presented to persons and organizations recognised for helping children. In its citation, the Audrey Hepburn Foundation recalled Irena Sendler's heroic efforts that saved 2,500 Jewish children during the German occupation of Poland in World War II.

Sendler was the last survivor of the Children's Section of the Żegota Council to Assist Jews, which she had headed from August 1943 until the end of the war.

Irena Sendler died in Warsaw on May 12, 2008.

PBS documentary

Polish coin picturing Sendler and fellow Holocaust resisters Zofia Kossak-Szczucka and Matylda Getter

American filmmaker Mary Skinner began working on a historical documentary film based on Irena Sendler's memoir as told to Anna Mieszkowska in 2003. Irena Sendler, In the Name of Their Mothers features the last long interviews Irena Sendler gave before she died. Also featured are three of Sendler's co-workers and several of the Jewish children they saved.

Filmed in Poland and the United States with Polish cinematographers Andrzej Wolf and Slawomir Grunberg, the film uses evocative location footage of Irena Sendler's wartime apartment, Żegota headquarters, Gestapo headquarters and the Pawiak Prison along with rare footage of the city during the German occupation to vividly re-create the events of Sendler's life. This is the first historical documentary made outside Poland to record the true story of Irena Sendler and the daring conspiracy of women who worked with her to save the children of the Warsaw ghetto.

Skinner recorded over 70 hours of interview material for the film and spent seven years consulting archives, historical experts, and eyewitnesses in the United States and Poland to uncover many unknown details about their operation. The film made its broadcast premiere on PBS in May 2011 in honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day, through KQED Presents. The DVD is distributed through PBS.

Life in a Jar

In 1999, Kansas students produced a play based on research into Irena Sendler's life story titled Life in a Jar. It has since been adapted to television as The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler.[17][18][19] Actress Anna Paquin plays the role of Irena.

Sendler's story was largely unknown to the world until the students developed The Irena Sendler Project,[20][21] producing their performance Life in a Jar. This student-produced drama has now been performed over 285 times all across the United States, in Canada and in Poland. Sendler's message of love and respect has grown through the performances, over 1,500 media stories, a student-developed website with 30,000,000 hits, a national teaching award in Poland and the United States, and an educational foundation, the Lowell Milken Education Center, to make Sendler’s story known to the world.

Life in a Jar continues to travel around the country[22] sharing Irena's story.


Irena's life has also been documented by many songs. Irish band Sixteen Dead Men's tribute 'Irena' was released in 2009 (HFWH Records).


Irena has been portrayed in bronze twice by the German artist Claudia Guderian. Her portrait is on exhibit at the Irena Sendler Schule in Hamburg, Germany.

Irena Sendler Sculpture at Irena Sendler School, Hamburg, Germany

See also


  1. ^ Irena Sendler
  2. ^ Mordecai Paldiel, The Path of the Righteous: Gentile Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust, Ktav Publishing House (January 1993), ISBN 08812537660
  3. ^ Yad Vashem Shoa Resource Center, "Activites Zegota" PDF file, Zegota, page 4/34 of the Report.
  4. ^ Baczynska, Gabriela; JonBoyle (2008-05-12). "Sendler, savior of Warsaw Ghetto children, dies". Washington Post (The Washington Post Company). Retrieved 2008-05-12. [dead link]
  5. ^ Sendler obit in The Telegraph
  6. ^ The Economist obituary
  7. ^ Irene Tomaszewski & Tecia Werblowski, Zegota: The Council to Aid Jews in Occupied Poland 1942-1945, Price-Patterson, ISBN 1-896881-15-7
  8. ^ Irene Tomaszewski & Tecia Werblowski, Zegota: The Council to Aid Jews in Occupied Poland 1942-1945, Price-Patterson, ISBN 1-896881-15-7.
  9. ^ Richard Z. Chesnoff, "The Other Schindlers: Steven Spielberg's epic film focuses on only one of many unsung heroes", U.S. News and World Report, 13 March 1994.
  10. ^ "Polish Holocaust hero dies at age 98". 2008-05-12. Retrieved 2008-05-13. 
  11. ^ L.S.I.C.
  12. ^ Mordecai Paldiel "Churches and the Holocaust: unholy teaching, good samaritans, and reconciliation" p.209-210, KTAV Publishing House, Inc., 2006, ISBN 0-88125-908-X, ISBN 978-0-88125-908-7
  13. ^ Mordecai Paldiel "Churches and the Holocaust: unholy teaching, good samaritans, and reconciliation" p.209-210, KTAV Publishing House, Inc., 2006, ISBN 978-0-88125-908-7
  14. ^
  15. ^ de Quetteville, Harry (12 May 2008). "'Female Schindler' Irene Sendler, who saved thousands of Jewish children, dies". The Daily Telegraph (London).,-who-saved-thousands-of-Jewish-children,-dies.html. Retrieved 5 May 2010. 
  16. ^ [1][dead link]
  17. ^ The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler at
  18. ^ Hallmark Hall of Fame news release
  19. ^ "The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler" on IMDB
  20. ^ Life in a Jar official website
  21. ^ Life in a Jar information
  22. ^ Life in a Jar presentations


External links