This story was originally written in 2007
Intervening to protect the safety of vulnerable members of society is one of the core tenets of social work. Nobody epitomises this more than Irena Sendler. As the Nazis began implementing their “final solution” in Poland in the early 1940s, Sendler, then a social worker in her early 30s, helped save 2,500 children in Warsaw’s Jewish ghetto from almost certain death.
But unlike the German industrialist Oskar Schindler, whose action to save more than 1,000 of his Jewish factory workers was portrayed in the Hollywood film Schindler’s List, Sendler’s feat went largely unheralded until recently.
However, thanks initially to children at an American school highlighting her achievements, and the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW) recognising her with its Most Distinguished Social Worker award last year, the details of Sendler’s story have become more widely known. She’s now been honoured by the Polish parliament, a biography is soon to be published in English and IFSW has also nominated her for the Nobel Peace Prize.
When Germany invaded Poland in 1939 Sendler began helping Jews by offering them food and shelter. The creation of the Warsaw ghetto in 1940 isolated the 450,000 Jewish community from the rest of the city’s population making it much harder to help them.
As the full extent of the Nazi’s plans for Warsaw’s Jews became apparent, Sendler and other members of Zegota – a secret organisation set up by the exiled Polish government to rescue Jews – realised that more direct action was needed.
She was able to use her position as a social worker to enter the ghetto and persuade parents and grandparents to relinquish their children into her care – the alternative being to stay and face almost certain death from starvation or death camps.
Using a variety of escape routes, the children were smuggled out of the ghetto and adopted by Polish families or hidden in orphanages and convents. Sendler made lists of the children’s real names and put these in jars and buried them in a friend’s garden, so that someday the children could be told of their true identity.
Sendler’s rescues ended in 1943 with her arrest. She was tortured and would have been killed but for Zegota bribing the German executioner to help her escape. She lived hidden for the remainder of the war but, when it was over dug the jars up and began trying to find the children’s parents. Virtually all had perished at the Treblinka death camp.
After the war, Sendler resumed her job as a social worker in Warsaw, but the details of her story were hidden because the Communist regime that replaced the Nazis persecuted Sendler for her involvement with Zegota. The persecution was so severe she lost her unborn child during interrogations.
Only after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was Sendler’s story openly talked about, and due to her age and the fact she doesn’t speak English it has not been more widely known about until now.
Joachim Wieler, a professor at the University of Applied Sciences in Erfurt, Germany, visited Sendler at her Warsaw care home last year on the IFSW’s behalf.
Wieler asked Sendler for her blessing for IFSW to make her a “professional role model”. He explained why this was so important. “[Sendler’s example] will hopefully help us not only to make the wisest and most life-saving decisions, but to stand the test when external pressure comes on.”
Wieler said that Sendler was perplexed by the “fuss” made over her heroic acts.
“When you know that something is basically at stake, like real life, you do everything to save it. You don’t talk about it and discuss it. You do it,” she told Wieler.
And she was adamant that while she “co-ordinated efforts”, there were 20-25 others who were involved in the rescues. “I did not do it alone,” she added.
This article appeared in the 3 May issue under the headline “A heroine emerges from the shadows”