Friday, July 05, 2013

The Polish Woman Who Saved 3000 Jews

The recent 70th commemoration of the Warsaw ghetto uprising focused renewed attention on the destruction of Polish Jewry during WWII and the people who lived through those days. As always, the question remains -- could more Poles have defied the Nazis and helped the Jews? This, and other questions, will forever remain within the realm of the unknown, but the examples of those non-Jewish Polish citizens who did take action provide history with some food for thought.

One such Polish woman was Irena Sendler whose incredible story of helping more than 3000 Jews escape the Nazis was almost buried until a group of amateur teenage historians publicized the narrative.

Irena Sendler was a young Polish social worker when the war broke out in 1939. She became active in the Zagota underground and helped forge documents that would allow Jews to go into hiding. All in all historians estimate that Sendler and other Zagota members assisted over 500 Jews during those early days of the war.

When the Warsaw ghetto was established in 1941 Sendler obtained false identity papers that allowed her to enter the ghetto as a nurse who specialized in infectious diseases. At first, her goal was to bring in food and medicines into the ghetto but as she sized up the situation, she realized that the Germans' ultimate goal was to kill all of the ghetto Jews. Sendler began to smuggle children out of the ghetto. At first she helped remove children who were living on the street, orphaned when their parents were killed or taken away. Slowly however she changed her efforts to try to help children whose parents were still alive.

In an interview conducted over 50 years after her wartime activities Sendler told her interviewers that the memories of her encounters with the parents still gave her nightmares. "I talked the mothers out of their children....Those scenes over whether to give a child away were heart-rending. Sometimes, they wouldn't give me the child. Their first question was, 'What guarantee is there that the child will live?' I said, 'None. I don't even know if I will get out of the ghetto alive today."

All in all it is estimated that Sendler was able to smuggle over 2500 children out of the ghetto. She often sedated the children, especially the small ones, and carried them out in bags, luggage or toolboxes. Sometimes she hid them under her tram seat while at other times she placed them in carts covered with garbage or snarling dogs to deter the Germans from investigating further. Many of the older children were guided out of the ghetto through the sewer pipes that ran underneath the city.

Once a child had been moved to the safe side of Warsaw Sendler organized a hiding place for the child. Some of the children needed forged documents that would allow them to be placed with sympathetic families while others were taken to orphanages and convents. Sendler meticulously documented all of the names and hiding places of the children on tissue paper which she placed in glass jars and buried in her garden. Sendler hoped that the children could be reunited with their families after the war or, if not, with the Jewish community.

In October of 1943 Sendler was arrested by the Germans and taken to the notorious Pawiak prison. The Nazis tortured her and broke both of her legs but she did not reveal any information about her activities, her comrades or the whereabouts of "her" children. Sendler was scheduled to be executed but Zagota was able to bribe a German guard who released her shortly before her scheduled execution.  Sendler went into hiding where she remained for the duration of the war.

In 1999 a group of students from Kansas City were studying the Holocaust. They heard about Sendler, who had been honored as a Righteous Gentile in 1965, and set about recording her story. They were able to meet with her in 2003 and interview her and from that research they established a project called "Life in a Jar" which, through Irena Sendler's story, explores the horrors of the Holocaust through the actions of one brave non-Jewish individual. After gaining funding from the Jewish run LMFF organization, they were able to create a video presentation and act out their performance about Irena Sendler in hundreds of locations.


  1. Like Oskar Schindler, Irena Sendler made it possible for the world to know the horror of a sick tyrant.

    Thank you Mr. Greenfield for bringing her story to your readers. And eternal thanks from me for all you do to stand guard over liberty.

  2. Anonymous5/7/13

    Thanks Daniel Greenfield.

    An especially profound story during these sad times in the USA. My uncles, one wounded in the 101st Airborne at the "Battle of the Bulge" and the other with Patton's army, liberating the camps, never forgot what they saw. Both gone now, it's even more important to tell these stories as so many students today do not seem to learn all that much about WWII. My uncles wrote to their mothers telling their stories which were then published on the front page of our little southern town paper. They still have historical events there where their story is read again and again.

    Thanks again for educating us about Irene Sendler and her brave acts of compassion.


  3. Anonymous6/7/13

    I come from far off land called India. My knowledge of Jews come from my father who was muslim. We used to have prayers on my birthday during which he would recite from the Quran and then translate its meaning. Once I asked him why do you say " save us from the Jews"..
    It made no sense to my innocent..but he stated that they were the enemies of Islam. I grew up with reason and discarded things from my world that made no sense. I moved to the west and got to know everything about Jews. I had the opportunity to meet and work with holocaust victims and heard their horror stories. Life changed and shaped me differently I am married to a person who is Jewish...but I am dead toy Ily of origin...this story of Sendler is moving I love your blog and read it every day...u are the best

  4. chillis7/7/13

    This brave woman was also nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007.
    Unfortunately, she lost, to someone apparently with more courage and human decency, Al Gore.
    THIS is the world we live in now.