International Holocaust Remembrance Day is celebrated every January 27, so in honor of that day, this week’s spotlight shines on Irena Sendler (1910-2008), the Nobel Peace Prize nominated Polish woman credited with saving nearly 2,500 Jewish children and infants during World War II.
Irena Sendler (nee Krzyżanowska) was a Polish humanitarian and social worker who served in the Polish Underground in Warsaw during World War II, as well as employed by the Polish Council Aid to Jews, called Zegota. Her story is as incredible as it is heroic.
Her strong desire to help others had been formed by her father’s example, a physician who treated the very poor, often without charging them. He had died when she was seven, having contracted typhus from one of his patients. She once said: “I was taught by my father that when someone is drowning you don’t ask if they can swim, you just jump in and help.”
Irena’s advocacy for Jews began even before war had started. While attending the University of Warsaw, she actively criticized the system segregating Jewish pupils from their non-Jewish counterparts during classes and lectures. She frequently joined Jewish friends on their side of the aisle, and when a Jewish friend was beaten, she crossed out the ‘Gentile’ stamp on her grade card, becoming Jewish in name and spirit.
After the war started, the Nazis allowed her passage in and out of the Warsaw Ghetto, where the Jews were sequestered, in order to treat them for typhus (not for compassion’s sake, but to prevent the spread of the disease to the Nazi troops). Starting in 1943, she smuggled children and infants out of Warsaw, sometimes hiding them in luggage and suitcases.
Once smuggled out of Warsaw, the children were placed amongst families, many of them Christian and Catholic, and given Christian names and taught Christian prayers should they be tested by Gestapo agents. Irena kept detailed records of each child, with the hope that one day they might be reunited with their parents. These lists were carefully hidden, even kept in jars and buried.
At one point, Irena was arrested by Gestapo, imprisoned and tortured. She refused to give up any names, keeping the children and her coworkers identity secret. She had been sentenced for execution, but escaped after fellow Zegota members bribed her German captors. After healing from her wounds, she resumed helping the group in freeing Jewish children.
After the war ended, she valiantly tried to reunite children and parents, but sadly most if not all of the adults had been exterminated. She continued her career as a nurse, and in 1980, joined the Solidarity movement to help end Communist rule (she had been active in the Polish communist community, but seems to have renounced her membership upon joining Solidarity).
Israel recognized her as on of the Righteous Among The Nations, and she received her award in 1983. In 2003, Pope St John Paul II personally wrote her a letter in which he expressed his profound thanks and gratitude for her efforts during the war.
Irena Sendler exemplified the aim of Christian living: love of neighbor, and a willingness to sacrifice one’s own life for the sake of the helpless and powerless. She might not have known Christ, but surely Christ knew her and lived through her. In a 2007 interview, one year before her death, she said: “I was brought up to believe that a person must be rescued when drowning, regardless of religion and nationality.”
May she serve as an example to everyone, a woman who’s life was a beacon of light to so many, a witness of charity during a time of abject evil and horror.