Irena Sendler: Holocaust Heroine

Last Updated: Friday, September 15, 2017

Irena Sendler (aka Irena Sendlerowa) was a member of Zegota, the clandestine Polish Rescue Organization, who, at great risk, rescued 2,500 Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto and placed them with Christian families.

She buried jars containing their real and assumed names in the garden, so that they could be one day learn the names of their biological families after the war.

Several Uniontown, Kansas [USA] students researched the story of Irena Sendler and decided that they would like to find Sendler's grave. To their surprise the students discovered that Sendler was still alive and that was living in a nursing home in Warsaw, confined to a wheelchair. The brutal torture by the Gestapo had taken its toll, but never once did she reveal the names.

And so they started corresponding, with a Polish ornithologist at the university in Kansas City as their translator. The students decided to write a play about Sendlerowa.

The play "Life in a Jar" debuted last February during their history class, followed by performances in rural churches, schools and nursing homes in Kansas and Missouri. Many in the audience were touched by the story, including a Jewish history teacher. He invited the student actors out to a restaurant, and asked them if they had a wish.

Yes -- they wanted to meet Sendlerowa in person. Several days later, he sent a check to the Uniontown school for six and a half thousand dollars he had collected from his Jewish friends, with only two conditions: that they give Sendlerowa a big hug from him, and after they return, to tell him everything that happened in Warsaw.

At a synagogue in the suburbs of Kansas City, on April 25 of this year, the Jewish teacher addressed a gathering of 250 people.

"How many people did Oscar Schindler save? A thousand. Irena Sendlerowa rescued two and a half thousand. Did you see a film about her?" he asked the audience, introducing the play. "Life in a jar" is only ten minutes long, as required for the student history olympics.

There are four roles. Sendlerowa tries to convince a reluctant Jewish mother in the ghetto to trust her with her child. Afterwards, she writes the child's name on a card and places it in a jar, burying it in the garden. The play won the history olympics in Kansas, but did not qualify for the national finals in Washington, DC. However, the four students presented their play in New York, it was filmed for a local channel, and C-Span and NPR showed interest. Their own lives and perspectives were changed by the play.

And this coming Wednesday, the four students will be meeting their hero in Warsaw! - Maryann Wojciechowski - Las Vegas, NV

Polish woman who saved 2500 children from the Nazis dies

Irena Sendlerowa, a Polish woman who smuggled thousands of children out of the Warsaw Ghetto saving them from certain death at the hands of the Nazis, has died at the age of 98.

As a social worker, she had neither the financial might nor the contact book of Oskar Schindler, to whom she is almost inevitably compared, yet she rescued almost double the number of children, about 2,500 in total.

The tricks of her trade were not elaborate: tool boxes, trolleys, suitcases and old sewer pipes were used to smuggleJewish babies and toddlers out of the ghetto, undetected by the Nazis.

"Her courageous activities ... serve as a beacon of light to the world, inspiring hope and restoring faith in the innate goodness of mankind," said Avner Shalev, the chairman of Israel's Holocaust memorial centre, Yad Vashem.

Nominated for Nobel Peace Prize

Officially recognised as a national hero by the Polish parliament last year as well as being nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize

"People who stand up for others, for the weak, are very rare," Marek Edelman, the last surviving commander of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, told Polish television. "The world would have been a better place if there were more of them."

Irena Sendler, 98; member of resistance saved lives of 2,500 Polish Jews

By Elaine Woo, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer May 12, 2008

Fate may have led Irena Sendler to the moment almost 70 years ago when she began to risk her life for the children of strangers. But for this humble Polish Catholic social worker, who was barely 30 when one of history's most nightmarish chapters unfolded before her, the pivotal influence was something her parents had drummed into her.

"I was taught that if you see a person drowning," she said, "you must jump into the water to save them, whether you can swim or not." - Irena Sendler

When the Nazis occupying Poland began rounding up Jews in 1940 and sending them to the Warsaw ghetto, Sendler plunged in. With daring and ingenuity, she saved the lives of more than 2,500 Jews, most of them children, a feat that went largely unrecognized until the last years of her life.

Sendler, 98, who died of pneumonia Monday in Warsaw, has been called the female Oskar Schindler, but she saved twice as many lives as the German industrialist, who sheltered 1,200 of his Jewish workers. Unlike Schindler, whose story received international attention in the 1993 movie "Schindler's List," Sendler and her heroic actions were almost lost to history until four Kansas schoolgirls wrote a play about her nine years ago.

The lesson Sendler taught them was that "one person can make a difference," Megan Felt, one of the authors of the play, said Monday. "Irena wasn't even 5 feet tall, but she walked into the Warsaw ghetto daily and faced certain death if she was caught. Her strength and courage showed us we can stand up for what we believe in, as well," said Felt, who is now 23 and helps raise funds for aging Holocaust rescuers.

Sendler was born Feb. 15, 1910, in Otwock, a small town southeast of Warsaw . She was an only child of parents who devoted much of their energies to helping workers. She was especially influenced by her father, a doctor who defied anti-Semites by treating sick Jews during outbreaks of typhoid fever. He died of the disease when Sendler was 9.

She studied at Warsaw University and was a social worker in Warsaw when the German occupation of Poland began in 1939. In 1940, after the Nazis herded Jews into the ghetto and built a wall separating it from the rest of the city, disease, especially typhoid, ran rampant. Social workers were not allowed inside the ghetto, but Sendler, imagining "the horror of life behind the walls," obtained fake identification and passed herself off as a nurse, allowed to bring in food, clothes and medicine.

By 1942, when the deadly intentions of the Nazis had become clear, Sendler joined a Polish underground organization, Zegota. She recruited 10 close friends -- a group that would eventually grow to 25, all but one of them women -- and began rescuing Jewish children. She and her friends smuggled the children out in boxes, suitcases, sacks and coffins, sedating babies to quiet their cries. Some were spirited away through a network of basements and secret passages. Operations were timed to the second.

One of Sendler's children told of waiting by a gate in darkness as a German soldier patrolled nearby. When the soldier passed, the boy counted to 30, then made a mad dash to the middle of the street, where a manhole cover opened and he was taken down into the sewers and eventually to safety. Decades later, Sendler was still haunted by the parents' pleas, particularly of those who ultimately could not bear to be apart from their children.

"The one question every parent asked me was 'Can you guarantee they will live?' We had to admit honestly that we could not, as we did not even know if we would succeed in leaving the ghetto that day. The only guarantee," she said, "was that the children would most likely die if they stayed." Most of the children who left with Sendler's group were taken into Roman Catholic convents, orphanages and homes and given non-Jewish aliases. Sendler recorded their true names on thin rolls of paper in the hope that she could reunite them with their families later. She preserved the precious scraps in jars and buried them in a friend's garden. In 1943, she was captured by the Nazis and tortured but refused to tell her captors who her co-conspirators were or where the bottles were buried.

She also resisted in other ways. According to Felt, when Sendler worked in the prison laundry, she and her co-workers made holes in the German soldiers' underwear. When the officers discovered what they had done, they lined up all the women and shot every other one. It was just one of many close calls for Sendler. During one particularly brutal torture session, her captors broke her feet and legs, and she passed out. When she awoke, a Gestapo officer told her he had accepted a bribe from her comrades in the resistance to help her escape. The officer added her name to a list of executed prisoners. Sendler went into hiding but continued her rescue efforts.

Felt said that Sendler had begun her rescue operation before she joined the organized resistance and helped a number of adults escape, including the man she later married. "We think she saved about 500 people before she joined Zegota," Felt said, which would mean that Sendler ultimately helped rescue about 3,000 Polish Jews.

When the war ended, Sendler unearthed the jars and began trying to return the children to their families. For the vast majority, there was no family left. Many of the children were adopted by Polish families; others were sent to Israel . In 1965, she was recognized by Yad Vashem , Israel 's Holocaust authority, as a Righteous Gentile, an honor given to non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Nazi reign. In her own country, however, she was unsung.

Her status began to change in 2000, when Felt and her classmates learned that the woman who had inspired them was still alive. Through the sponsorship of a local Jewish organization, they traveled to Warsaw in 2001 to meet Sendler, who helped the students improve and expand the play. Called "Life in a Jar," it has been performed more than 250 times in the United States , Canada and Poland and generated media attention that cast a spotlight on the wizened, round-faced nonagenarian. After each performance, Felt and the other cast members passed a jar for Sendler, raising enough money to move her into a Catholic nursing home with round-the-clock care. They and the teacher who assigned them the play project, Norman Conard, started the Life in a Jar Foundation, which has raised more than $70,000 to help pay for medical and other needs of Holocaust rescuers.

Last year, Sendler was honored by the Polish Senate and nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, which brought dozens of reporters to her door. She told one of them she was wearying of the attention. "Every child saved with my help is the justification of my existence on this Earth," she said, "and not a title to glory." Sendler, who was the last living member of her group of rescuers, is survived by a daughter and a granddaughter.