Irena Sendler lived a life that most couldn’t even imagine! She was born in Warsaw, Poland on February 15, 1910. Her father died when she was only seven-years-old, but one lesson he taught her shaped her entire life: always help the needy.
Her life work and incredible risk she took day in and day out has been hidden from popular history – until recently….
Irena’s story began as a child, where she watched her father serve countless patients as one of Poland’s most well-respected doctors. Inspired by her father’s work, Irena decided to follow in his footsteps and pursue a career in medicine.
After years of training and dedication, the young woman was finally licensed as a nurse and began her career with the Warsaw Social Welfare Department near one of the worst areas for Jewish families during World War II: the Warsaw Ghetto.
The skilled nurse passed out food, clothing and other important items to families who desperately needed the help! Even though Irena was a devout Catholic, she never hesitated to help Jewish people in dire circumstances.
During her time working near the Warsaw Ghetto, Irena was introduced to the underground resistance organization called “Zegota.” The group tried to free entrapped Jews from the ghettos before they were forced into the death camps, where their fate was all but certain!
Alongside the other Zegota members, Irena snuck out Jewish children any way she could. She used her nursing certificate to say some children were ill, or even dead, and fooled the Nazi soldiers standing guard in the ghetto.
Even though Irena was clearly a good person trying to help children from a life of overcrowding, disease and certain death, some parents were hesitant to hand over their little ones to a complete stranger.
She explained this struggle with the Polish publication, Sydsvenskan.
“The father might have wanted to hand over the child to me, but not the mother. Or [it] was the grandmother or grandmother who refused.
And the child was crying in fear and despair.”
Despite their fears and unwillingness to go without their children, thousands of parents allowed Irena to sneak their children into freedom!
Over the years, Irena saved thousands of Jewish children from Nazi rule and punishment. Even after she was caught trying to sneak children over the border into the free “Aryan land,” she never gave up the names of the children she freed!
“The hatred [I had for] the German occupiers was stronger than fear…. My father taught me to reach out to a drowning man, even if you can’t swim. [During that time] it was Poland who was drowning.”
Over the years, Irena made some wonderful friends who helped her escape from the torture and maliciousness of Nazi prison. In a genius plot, Irena’s friends bribed an officer in the prison and snuck her out!
Unfortunately, Irena’s escape was after both of her arms had been broken during her many interrogations with Nazi commanding officers.
Irena spent the rest of her years living under an assumed name and running from Nazi persecution. Although she was in serious danger herself, Irena returned to her old home to retrieve something that would help the children she saved all those years back one more time!
Irena kept a list of the name of every child she helped hidden away in metal cans in her neighbor’s yard. The brave woman dug up the cans and, once the war was over, she reached out to every child on that list and worked to reunite them with their families!
Many passed in the concentration camps or due to malnutrition and disease in the ghettos, but countless families were reunited thanks to Irena.
Before her passing at the age of 98, Irena had the pleasure of meeting with the families she helped during her years with Zegota.
“Now both the children and grandchildren of those I rescued [come] and see me.”
Her bravery and determination to help others during a dangerous time in history is something we can all take to heart and try to emulate! Regardless of religious beliefs or background, Irena knew that we are all brothers and sisters, and should try to help each other as such!
Incredibly, it was a high school students’ assignment that uncovered Irena’s incredible mission in life and made it more widely known. Watch this amazing video below to learn more about her life and the students who got to meet her!
Sources: Facebook/Irena Sendler, YouTube/K-State College of Education, Sydsvenskan/ Credits: Faithtap / FB Image Credit: Facebook/Irena Sendler
Irena’s tale is one that not many people know – so be sure to share her story with your friends and loved ones!