Irena Sendler, the social worker who rescued nearly 2,500 Jewish children from the Warsaw ghetto during the Second World War, died on 12 May aged 98.
Half a million Jewish people had been crowded into the Polish ghetto by 1942, where the only escape from disease and starvation was transport to extermination camps. Recognising the Nazis deadly intentions, Sendler was appointed the head of the children’s section of underground organisation Zegota, which aided Jewish people in escaping from the ghetto.
She and her team of 20 entered the ghetto under the pretence of checking for a typhoid outbreak. The team then tried to convince parents to let them take their children away from a certain death.
While the Nazis were destroying the ghetto in 1943, she and her team smuggled out children and babies in whatever ways they could find, including in a mechanic’s box, in coffins, and disguised as parcels.
The same year, Sendler was captured and tortured by the Gestapo. They broke her feet and legs but she still refused to reveal the identities of her helpers or the children. A death sentence was only avoided when one of her helpers bribed a prison guard to set her free.
She kept a list of all the smuggled children in a jar beneath a tree in a friend’s garden. When the war was over she tried to reunite the children with parents who had survived the war.
Even after 1945, however, Sendler’s story was not revealed, as Poland’s communist government continued to persecute her for her involvement with Zegota. The climate in Poland remained anti-semitic with suspicion falling on anybody involved with non-communist organisations. But despite losing an unborn child while government officials interrogated her, she continued to work as a social worker in Warsaw, co-founding an orphanage and an older people’s home and setting up a services for women and children in need. In 2003 Poland at last recognised her work and awarded her the country’s top decoration: the Order of the White Eagle.
Elizabieta Ficowska was rescued as a baby in 1942. “Mrs Sendler saved not only us, but also our children and grandchildren and the generations to come,” she told the Associated Press last year.
In a letter to the Polish Senate, also last year, Sendler said: “Every child saved with my help and the help of all the wonderful secret messengers, who today are no longer living, is the justification of my existence on this earth, and not a title to glory.”
In 2006, the International Federation of Social Workers named her most distinguished social worker at the organisation’s 50th anniversary conference in Munich. She was also nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007.
She was named as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem holocaust memorial, a title dedicated to those who helped Jewish people during the war. Yad Vashem chairman Avner Shalev said last week: “Irena Sendler’s courageous activities rescuing Jews during the Holocaust serve as a beacon of light to the world, inspiring hope and restoring faith in the innate goodness of mankind.”
A Roman Catholic, Sendler was known as the “female Schindler”, although she saved twice as many lives as the German industrialist who was made famous by the 1993 film. The Irena Sendler Story is in pre-production by American television network CBS.
Born in Otwock, near Warsaw, on 15 February 1910, Sendler was the only daughter of a doctor, Stanislaw Krzyzanowski, who enjoyed good relations with his Jewish neighbours. Catholic children in Poland were often prevented from playing with Jewish children but Krzyzanowski did not follow this convention.
Her second husband – she had divorced her first shortly after the war – was fellow underground member, Stefan Zgrzembski, with whom she had two sons and a daughter. One son died a few days after his birth and the second, Adam, died of heart failure in 1999. She is survived by her daughter and a granddaughter.
Sendler often said her actions were “a normal thing to do” and did not like the description of herself as a “hero”, saying “the opposite is true – I continue to have qualms of conscience that I did so little. I could have done more. This regret will follow me to my death.”
Social worker Irena Sendler tells of her Schindler-style mercy mission in Warsaw ghetto
The Irena Sendler Project