Irena Sendler

Remembering the victims of the Holocaust is extremely important, now probably more than ever, however it is also important to remember the heroes who saved so many from certain death.

Today marks the 111th birthday of Irena Sendler.

Sendler was born Irena Krzyżanowska on February 15, 1910, in Otwock, Poland. Her parents were members of the Polish Socialist Party, and her father, Stanisław Krzyżanowski was a physician, he died of typhus when Irena was still a child. In 1931 Irena married Mieczysław Sendler, and the couple moved to Warsaw before the outbreak of World War II.

During the war, Irena worked at the Department for Social Welfare and Public Health in Poland, as a Social worker. She helped smuggle more than 2,500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw ghetto during the Holocaust.

As head of the children’s section of Żegota, the Polish underground Council for Aid to Jews, Irena (“Jolonta”) Sendler regularly used her position as a social worker to enter the Warsaw ghetto and help smuggle children out. Hiding them in orphanages, convents, schools, hospitals, and private homes, she provided each child with a new identity, carefully recording in code their original names and placements so that surviving relatives could find them after the war.

In September 1943, four months after the Warsaw ghetto was destroyed, Sendler was appointed director of Zegota’s Department for the Care of Jewish Children. Sendler, whose underground name was Jolanta, exploited her contacts with orphanages and institutes for abandoned children, to send Jewish children there. Many of the children were sent to the Rodzina Marii (Family of Mary) Orphanage in Warsaw and religious institutions run by nuns in nearby Chotomów, and Turkowice, near Lublin.

On 20 October 1943, Sendler was arrested. She managed to stash away incriminating evidence such as the coded addresses of children in the care of Zegota and large sums of money to pay to those who helped Jews. She was sentenced to death and sent to the infamous Pawiak prison, but underground activists managed to bribe officials to release her. Her close encounter with death did not deter her from continuing her activity. After her release in February 1944, even though she knew that the authorities were keeping an eye on her, Sendler continued her underground activities. Because of the danger, she had to go into hiding. The necessities of her clandestine life prevented her from attending her mother’s funeral.

This work was done at huge risk, in October 1941 a law was passed that —giving any kind of assistance to Jews in Poland was punishable by death, not just for the person who was providing the help but also for their entire family or household.

Jews would face the death penalty if they were found outside the ghetto, and those that helped the Jews had the same fate.

After the war, Sendler’s first marriage ended in divorce. In 1947 she married Stefan Zgrzembski, with whom she had three children, daughter Janka, and sons Andrzej (who died in infancy) and Adam. After the death of Zgrzembski, Sendler remarried her first husband, Mieczysław Sendler, but their reunion didn’t last and they again divorced.

Yad Vashem recognized Ms. Sendler with the Righteous Among the Nations medal in 1965. She died in Warsaw, Poland, on May 12, 2008, following a long illness.



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