Modern Day Saint

Irena Sendler
1910 – 2008

Irena Sendler was born February 15, 1910 in Warsaw, Congress Poland, and a Russian Empire.  She died May 12, 2008 (aged 98) in Warsaw, Poland.

Irena Sendler was a Polish Catholic social worker. During World War II she was an activist in the Polish underground and the Zegota (Council for Aid to Jews) Polish anti-Holocaust resistance in Warsaw. She helped save 2,500 Jewish children from the Warsaw ghetto by providing them with false documents and sheltering them in individual and group children's homes outside the ghetto.

During the World War II German occupation of Poland, Sendler lived in Warsaw. Prior to the occupation, she lived in Otwock and Tarczyn while working for urban social welfare departments.

She began aiding Jews long before the Warsaw ghetto was established. As early as 1939 when the Germans invaded Poland, she began offering food and shelter to the Jews. Sendler and her helpers created over 3,000 false documents for Jewish families prior to joining the organized resistance of Zegota and the children's division. Helping Jews was dangerous—in German-occupied Poland, all household members risked a death sentence if any Jews were found hiding in the house. This punishment was more severe than was applied in other occupied European countries.

In December 1942, the newly created Children's Section of the Zegota nominated her under her cover name Jolanta as its head. 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. During her visits she wore a Star of David emblem to signify solidarity with the Jewish people and to avoid calling attention to her.   

She cooperated with the Children's Section of the Municipal Administration, linked with the RGO (Central Welfare Council), a Polish relief organization tolerated under German supervision. She organized the smuggling of Jewish children from the ghetto. Under the pretext of conducting inspections of sanitary conditions during a typhoid outbreak, Sendler visited the ghetto and smuggled out babies and small children. She and the ten who went with her into the ghetto used many, many methods to smuggle out children; however, there were five main means of escape:  1- using an ambulance, a child could be taken out hidden under a stretcher; 2- escape through the courthouse; 3- a child could be taken out using the sewer pipes or other secret underground passages; 4 - a trolley could carry out children hiding in a sack, in a trunk, a suitcase or something similar; 5- if a child could pretend to be sick or was actually ill, the child could be legally removed using the ambulance. Another ploy was to hide the children in a truck that also carried a dog trained to bark at Nazi troopers.  Troopers were very hesitant to search the truck.

The children were placed with Polish families, in the Warsaw orphanage of the Sisters of the Family of Mary or in Roman Catholic convents such as the Sisters Little Servants of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Mary at Turkowice and Chotomów. Some were smuggled to priests in parish rectories where they could be further hidden.

She hid lists of their names in jars, in order to keep track of their original and new identities. Zegota assured the children that when the war was over, they must be returned to Jewish relatives.

In 1943, Sendler was arrested by the Gestapo, severely tortured and sentenced to death. Zegota saved her by bribing German guards on the way to her execution. She was left in the woods, unconscious and with broken arms and legs. 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 dug up the jars containing the children's identities and began an attempt to find the children and return them to living parents. However, almost all of the children's parents had died in the Treblinka extermination camp.

Upon receiving postwar awards she said, "Every child saved with my help is the justification of my existence on this Earth and not a title to glory." She said as many as 25 others helped her during the war.  

In a letter to the Polish parliament in 1965, Sendler was recognized by Yad Vashem as a Righteous Among the Nations, which was confirmed in 1983 by the Israeli Supreme Court. She also was awarded the Commanders Cross by the Israeli Institute.

In 2003, Pope John Paul II sent a personal letter to Sendler, praising her wartime efforts.

On October 10, 2003, Irena Sendler received the Order of the White Eagle, Poland's highest civilian decoration. She was also awarded the Jan Karski Award "For Courage and Heart," given by the American Center of Polish Culture in Washington, D.C.

On March 14, 2007, Sendler was honored by Poland's Senate. At age 97, she was unable to leave the nursing home where she lived to accept the honor, but sent a statement through Elzbieta Ficowska whom Sendler had saved as an infant. Polish President Lech Kaczynski stated she "can justly be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize" (though nominations are supposed to be kept secret

Sendler was the last survivor of the Children's Section of the Zegota Council for Aid to the Jews, which she had headed from January 1943 until the end of World War II.  

During one of her many interviews she said, “I sometimes wondered why there is so much fuss about ‘heroic acts’. It is something that came rather naturally as a result of my early upbringing and education. 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. – Once a journalist asked me if I would have saved only Jewish children. I found this to be a strange question. I wonder how someone can distinguish between children or even adults.

A play, called “Life in a Jar,” based on Sendler’s life has been presented in many high schools during 2008. Check the Internet for more information and pictures of this Modern Day Saint.

Sendler was a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007.  Considerable publicity accompanied her nomination. Although the names of nominees not chosen for the award have not been publicly announced by the Nobel organization for 50 years, her nomination focused a spotlight upon Sendler and her wartime contribution. The 2007 award, however, was presented to Al Gore, former Vice President of the United States, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Jim Fritz

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