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She grew up in a patriotic family – her great-grandfather participated in the January Uprising, for which he was sent to Siberia. She spent her childhood years in Otwock with Jewish peers. Irena Sendler’s father, Stanisław Krzyżanowski, founded the first tuberculosis clinic there. She was also so close to the Jewish community there, that by the time she was 5-7 years old she could already speak the Yiddish. “I was raised in a spirit that taught that religion, nationality, race did not matter – what mattered was the person!” writes Irena Sendler in her autobiography.
After her father’s death in February 1917, the Jewish community funded a scholarship for Irena Sendler, however, her mother did not accept it because she was young and wanted to provide for her family by herself. Soon, Irena Sendler and her mother moved to Warsaw. In middle school she became a scout. In the 1930s she completed Polish Philology at the University of Warsaw, while also taking additional courses in the Pedagogy department. During her university years she sat with her friends at the „ghetto desks.” “I could not stand the phrase which was in the student index –
In 1931 she married Mieczysław Sendler, who was at that time the assistant in the Classical Philology department at the University of Warsaw. She was involved with the Polish Democratic Youth Union as well as in the Polish Socialist Party (she left the party at the moment when the Polish United Workers Party was formed in 1948).
In 1932 she was hired in the division which cared for mothers and children, by the Citizens’ Social Aid Committee (Obywatelski Komitet Pomocy Społecznej), which functioned under the auspices of Helena Radlińska. She took care of unwed mothers there. Prior to this, however, she carried out an internship in WOLNA WSZECHNICA POLSKA at Opaczewska 2a street (today Banacha street). “The whole WSZECHNICA had a reputation as a Communist-leaning school, so I fit right in with my political past. My work there placed a metaphorical < to dot the i> of my future world outlook.” In 1935 the Citizens’ Social Aid Committee was dismantled. For this reason Irena Sendler was moved to the Welfare Assistance department of the Warsaw Administration, where she was still working at the outbreak of the war.
Even before the ghetto was formed, along with other colleagues from the Welfare Assistance Department, she began to organize forms of social assistance for Jews. “How did we do it? The basis of receiving social assistance was collecting data and statistics from the communities. So we forged these statistics and interviews – meaning we listed made-up names, and in this way were able to secure money, food items, clothing. We brought the items to the ghetto, […] We did this for some years, but of course the Germans eventually caught on to the falsifications. […] At some point the Germans sent in their own people – Volksdeutsche – into all of Warsaw. They checked our statistics and interviews. And a scandal erupted.” – writes Irena Sendler in her biographical work. This is why the director of the Welfare Assistance Department was deported to Auschwitz.
Every day Irena Sendler helped more and more people from the ghetto, being unable to just walk past the injustice indifferently. “How did we get into the ghetto? Two of us had permanent passes, thanks to the fact that the director of the city sanitation department – Dr. Juliusz Majkowski, placed myself and my colleague – Irena Schultz on a list of workers who went to the ghetto to perform disinfections. It is clear that we did not take part in such things, we were only on the lists of those who had to have passes. So it was all fiction, but a very necessary fiction.” While inside the ghetto, Irena Sendler wore a Star of David band on her arm. She did it for two reasons, the first so that she would not stand out from the crowd, the second being a sign of solidarity with the Jews.
In 1942 Irena Sendler got in contact with Julian Grobelny from the Polish Socialist Party (Polska Partia Robotnicza), who stood at the head of the Council to Aid Jews – “Żegota.” Grobelny commissioned various tasks for her to carry out on the ground of the ghetto. In December 1942 she was also entrusted with running the branch that dealt with child welfare. She worked under the pseudonym “Jolanta”.
Because she knew many people on the grounds of the ghetto, Irena Sendler decided to bring people out especially children from it onto the Aryan Side. Many secret meetings took place in order to ensure that everything would run smoothly. Many escape routes were established: went through the courts on Leszno Street; through the work fields, which led into the city; through route went through many cellars; in the trucks of the sanitation department. After getting out of the ghetto, the children had to be placed in special points (“Custody Points”). There, they went through a period of adjusting to their new environments. Next, the children went to one of three places: foster families, city institutes, or convents.
The personal data of the children who were saved by Irena Sendler and her collegues from “Żegota” was written down on very narrow pieces of paper, which became known as “Sendler’s List” after the war. The files were kept at her house. “What we had on those lists was the real first and last name of the child, their first and last name based on their birth certificate, as well as their current address. This data was necessary in order to be able to provide them with money, clothing, medicine, and also so that we could have at least some minimal control over the welfare of the child, to make sure that it was not being harmed, and finally so that we could find them after the war” – she writes in her biographical work. However, Irena Sendler saved children not only through her work with “Żegota”.
„Every person working in the conspiracy during the war had his or her own concept or plan of what to do, where to hide materials. […] My “plan” turned out to be very naive, absolutely impossible to carry out during a “visit” from the Gestapo. […] Today, after many years, the scene which played out in my home seems unbelievable, although it is 100% true! So my plan, thought up over many sleepless nights, was based on the idea that I put those pieces of paper – the lists, on the middle of the table every evening. My idea was that, at the moment when the Gestapo came and started banging on the door, and every activist could expect such a visit sooner or later – I would throw the whole roll of paper out the window. I lived on the first floor then and my windows faced the building’s yard”. Irena Sendler was arrested by the Gestapo on her name's day – the 20th of October, 1943. On that day, she was at home with her mother, aunt, and her friend and activist-messenger Janina Grabowska, who were planning on spending the night at her home because they had not left to go back before the police hour. That night she had put the lists with the children’s names, as well as various conspiracy documents, next to her bed. Around three o’clock in the morning the Gestapo began knocking on Irena Sendler’s door. „The first to wake up was my sick mother. When I opened my eyes the Gestapo was already going crazy on the other side of the door. […] Guided by the “plan” I had come up with, I lunged toward the window to throw the lists out. Unfortunately, there were 2 Gestapo agents standing under my window. In that one second, my perfect plan, thought up over four years, turned useless. The Gestapo had already broken down the door. In a flash of clear-sightedness I tossed the whole roll to Grabowska saying
Irena Sendler was taken to Pawiak.“At the “Pawiak” I received secret letters from “Żegota” through the conspiracy network which was organized inside the prison. They tried to cheer me up in them; these letters kept my spirits alive, they allowed me to believe in people, because looking at the actions of the “Uebermenschen”, the Germans, one could completely lose faith in humanity. […] One fine winter morning they came into my cell and read out my name from a list. […] They are packing us onto trucks, there were a lot of us, maybe 30 or 40 people. […] We are driving through Warsaw, saying goodbye to it with the look in our eyes, while the eyes of the people walking the streets are saying goodbye to us, because these trucks, know as “Shacks” were well known in the city! We arrive at Szucha Street, at the headquarters of the Gestapo. [...] They unload us into the hall on the ground floor. The place is full of Gestapo agents. They tell all those whose names are read to go off to the right. Finally, my name is read and one of them tells me to go to the left. I found myself alone in a tiny room, and I was overcome with a great panic-grief.” A Gestapo officer entered the room, and then, under the guise of having to take the prisoner to ul.Wiejska for additional interrogation, walked her outside the Pawiak, and released her. Irena Sendler asked the officer if he could return her documents, without which she could not function in the city, but he hit her in the face a few times and walked away. “I was bleeding, and fell down to the ground. And when, with great difficulty, I picked myself up again and saw the Gestapo officer walking away in the distance, I began shivering from the cold, it was winter after all. I understood one thing, that I must get away as quickly as possible. I went into the closest house, where there was a drugstore at that time, while today there is a kiosk where I buy my daily papers” – recalls Ms. Sendler. The owner of the shop helped Irena Sendler come around, she gave her a coat and money for the tram.
After she made it back home, Irena Sendler found out that her release from the Pawiak was thanks to the intervention of Ms. Maria Palester from “Żegota”.
At the moment when Janina Grabowska caught the list of children’s names in her hands, she put on Irena Sendler’s long-sleeved bathrobe and hid the lists inside the sleeves until the end of the search. When the Gestapo demanded that they raise their hands, the index of names fell to their feet. Janina Grabowska held onto the list until the time Irena Sendler was released from the Pawiak. When she returned from prison, Sendler recovered the list and buried it under the apple tree in the garden of the activist-messenger Jadwiga Piotrkowska at ul. Lekarska (the tree is still there today). When the war was over Mrs. Sendler passed the list along to Adolf Berman, who was later head of the Central Committee of Jews in Poland. He took it to Israel where it was copied many times. However, no one knows what happened to the original rolls of lists.
Irena Sendler as Klara Dąbrowska had to hide from the Germans when it became clear that she had escaped from the Pawiak. For some time she was at her uncle’s near Nowy Sącz. Many times Germans stood in her way, however, she was always able to escape these precarious situations in one piece.
Despite the dangers, she returned to her work with „Żegota”, continuing to run the Child Welfare department. During the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto she organized more “Custody Points” It became more and more difficult to communicate with the hidden children, there were "szmalcowniks" (denouncers) taking bribes, and reporting to the German authorities. During the Warsaw Uprising Irena Sendler worked as a nurse for the Polish Red Cross at the hospital point on ul. Łowicka 51/53. There, she hid three Jewish adults, as well as two children. Among them was 20 year-old Pesa Rosenholc.
After the war the hospital point was moved to Okęcie. On the 17th of January, 1945, at 15:00 Soviet and Polish troops marched into the area – the war was over.
After completing operations related to the war, Irena Sendler continued her involvement in social issues by working with the Red Cross, as well as in the Welfare department of the City Hall of Warsaw. She was also the head of the medical training department at the Ministry of Health.
In 1949she was brutally interrogated by the the Security Agency (Urzad Bezpieczenstwa,), because word had reached them that she was hiding members of the Home Army (AK). She was in the late stages of pregnancy and she had a miscarriage. Thanks to the help of one of her “children,” Irena Majewska, she avoided being arrested.
At the age of 57 she was forced to retire after being accused of showing satisfaction that Israel has won a the war with the Arab world.
Since 1980 she was a member of Solidarity.
She avoided publicity. „I avoided journalists, first of all, so that they would not make a big fuss around my person, and second, I am afraid of them, because you tell them one thing, and they write something completely different” – recalls Irena Sendler in an autobiography.
She was a very humble person until the end, always looking at another human being with love, always willing to help them.
Here is how she describes herself in her autobiography:
“I personally feel very uncomfortable because of this whole “fuss” which constantly makes “heroes” of us. These grand festivities which accompany the planting of a tree in Jerusalem, the big celebration which occurs in Israel, it is all very embarrassing for persons of my type, who don’t consider themselves to be great people, or heroes. We did these things as completely normal things, on the principle that when a person is drowning, we should reach out a hand to them, or at least a pinky finger. This constant emphasis on how extraordinary our work was – it is uncomfortable. A Jew, a Frenchman, a German, they are, after all, the same people, like us – that was the only thought in our minds. That which we did came from a need in our hearts”.
In 1965 Irena Sendler was awarded with the Righteous Among the Nations. Medal. She did not go to Israel until 1983, because it was only then that she received a passport. She received up her Medal then and planted an olive tree on the Avenue of the Righteous of Yad Vashem. “A tree at the top of Jerusalem is even better than a monument. Monuments can be ruined, but the Tree of Remembrance will always grow.”
In 1991 she received an honorary Israeli citizenship.
Until 1999 not many people had heard of Irena Sendler. This changed when an American teacher, Norman Conrad, along with his students, put together a theatrical production entitled “Life in a Jar.” It told the life story of Irena Sendler. The play received great attention from the press and media outlets in the United States. It was presented over 200 times throughout the United States and Europe. This led to the establishment of a foundation which was dedicated to promoting the attitude and message of Irena Sendler.
On March 10th , 2002, Temple B’nai Jehudah presented Irena Sendler with its annual award “for contributions made to saving the world” (Tikkun Olam). On November 10th , 2003 she received the Order of the White Eagle from President Aleksander Kwaśniewski. That same year, she also received the Jan Karski Award for Bravery and Courage, which is awarded by the American Center for Polish Culture in Washington, D.C. Also that year the Children of the Holocaust Society nominated Irena Sendler for a Nobel Peace Prize (her second nomination came in the year 2007). Irena Sendler was not pleased with these honors, and she once said: “After Jedwabne they need a hero”. She was also honored with the Commander’s Cross with the Star of the Order of Rebirth of Poland, and pope, John Paul II, sent her a congratulatory letter.
From the year 2006, an arm of the American Foundation “Life In a Jar”, as well as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland, established an award named for Irena Sendler given to those who help “save the world”.
On the 14th of March, 2007, the Polish senate took up a resolution to decorate the actions of Irena Sendler and of “Żegota” within the secret structures of the Polish Underground State. It was to pay tribute to her actions.
On April 11th of the same year she received the Medal of Smile(Order Uśmiechu) after the petition of 15 year old Szymon Płóciennik from Zielona Góra. It was a very important award for Irena Sendler (along with the letter from John Paul II and her honor from the Righteous Among the Nations Medal. On May 24, 2007 she also received the title of Honorary Citizen of the City of Warsaw. In June of that same year she became and Honorary Citizen of the City of Tarczyn.
She died on May 12th 2008. She was 98.