It was the dark times in Europe. The holocaust was a nightmare that haunted citizens during the World War II. The systematic mass murders of European Jewish people had been ordered by Adolf Hitler as they were being discounted from the civil society.
Men, women and children, no one was excluded from the horrors of death. Here is where our story starts.
Irena Sendler (a.k.a. Irena Sendlerowa) was a Polish nurse born in 15th of February 1910. She was born in Otwock, which at that time was a quaint town just a couple of miles in Warsaw. Irena spent most of her days in Warsaw, where a spirited community of Jewish people lived.
Irena moved to Warsaw prior to the eruption of World War II. She was a social worker at the time. At the time of German invasion in 1939, she started aiding the Jews by providing false documents. It was a like a death wish for Irena because at the time of the takeover. Anyone who was caught helping the Jews was punished by death. This includes their household and the entire family.
By 1943, Irena was known as by her pseudonym Jolanta to protect her identity. At that time, she was a part of the underground organization known as the Żegota or Konrad Żegota Committee. The Żegota was an alias to the Council Aid to the Jews, a Polish opposition mostly made up of Polish Catholic activists. Secretly, they pledged support to Polish Jews by providing basic necessities to the oppressed Jewish population. Money, food, and medicines were covertly distributed to the Jews by the Żegota in different forced labor camps in Poland.
Irena was nominated by the council to front their Jewish children’s section. It was a fitting role for the young Irena as she was an employee of the Social Welfare Department. Her role gave her an access to go in and out of the war-stricken town, Warsaw Ghetto. She managed to be issued by a pass from Warsaw’s Epidemic Control Department. Irena was able to do a daily probe of the Ghetto while being under the pretext that she was merely the examining the sanitary conditions within the walled community.
Irena and her coworker’s task was to check for anyone afflicted by typhus, an infectious disease brought about by a bacteria that thrives in poor living conditions, such as the case in the Warsaw Ghetto. Incidentally, this sickness shielded Irena’s team from the strict inspection of the Germans as they were afraid to contract the disease. Because of this, Irena had a window of opportunity for her heroic act.
The clueless German officers who were guarding the Ghetto did not know that Irena’s courageous act was already taking place right under their noses. As Irena and her colleagues were performing the check-up, they were also smuggling out babies and small children out of the Ghetto community.
She placed the children in ambulances and trams to make it appear that they’re ill. Other times, she will bury them under loads of goods. There was even a mechanic who smuggled a baby out using his toolbox. Irena’s creativity did not stop there. She also helped children out by carrying them out using potato sacks. The other kids were placed in body bags and coffins.
All in all, Irena and her colleagues smuggled 2,500 children out of the walled Ghetto. Most of the children were placed in religious establishments because she knew that the Sisters were not going to refuse her. She meticulously kept the children’s identities in a jar by coding their original names and their aliases in the hopes finding these children and reconnect them with their families after the war. She buried the jars in a neighbor’s backyard, just right across the German barracks.
In 1943, Irena’s actions were discovered by the Nazis. She was arrested, imprisoned and tortured by Gestapo. They broke Irena’s feet and legs because they wanted to break her spirit. They hoped that she would reveal the identities of the people who helped her take the children out of the walled community. Despite Irena’s frail features, she stood the torture that was inflicted on her which had disabled her for life. Irena was sentenced to death by the Gestapo when a last-minute mission helped her flee from exile by her friends, the Żegota. The rest of the war made her a fugitive as she was constantly hunted by the German soldiers.
When the war ended, Irena searched for the buried jars and searched the 2,500 children to complete her mission: reunite them with their families. Sadly, most of them were casualties of the Holocaust, the Nazi death camp. Years passed before the whole story of Irena became known. The humble lady did not see herself as a hero. She believed that any human being with sincere respect and love towards each living person would have done the same. Despite the insurmountable hurdles she faced in order to execute her mission, she did not take any credit for it.
Because of her boldness, she was recognized by the Jewish community as an honorary citizen of Israel in 1991. In 2003, years after her valiant efforts, she has bestowed the highest recognition by her motherland, Poland. The Order of White Eagle was granted to Irena. It was in the same year when she was announced as the winner of Jan Karski Award for Valor and Courage. She has also been selected as Poland’s national hero. The highest merit Irena reached was being nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize two years in a row, 2007 and 2008. After her Nobel Peace nomination, more recognition came to acknowledge Irena’s hard work. Irena Sendler was one of the most steadfast women of Poland who did not blink an eye to aid the Jews during the Nazi occupation of her country. She allowed not just the safety of the 2,500 Jewish children, but also the generations of their descendants.