Irena Sendler A Woman Of Inspiration Life In A Jar
quot;Every child saved with my help is the
justification of my existence on this
Earth, and not a title to gloryquot;
—Letter to Polish Parliament
The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler
15 February 1910
Warsaw, Congress Poland, Russian Empire
12 May 2008 (aged 98)
Social worker, humanitarian
Irena Sendler (in Polish Irena Sendlerowa née
Krzyżanowska; 15 February 1910 – 12 May 2008) was a
Polish Catholic social worker who served in the Polish
Underground and the Żegota resistance organization in
German-occupied Warsaw during World War II.
Jewish children in the Warsaw Ghetto
Assisted by some two dozen other Żegota members, Sendler saved 2,500
Jewish children by smuggling them out of the Warsaw Ghetto, providing
them false documents, and sheltering them in individual and group
children's homes outside the Ghetto.
Irena sympathized with Jews from childhood. Her great-grandfather had been
deported to Siberia by Czarist Russia. Her physician father had died in 1917 of
typhus contracted while treating Jewish patients. She opposed the ghetto-
bench system that existed at some prewar Polish universities, and because of
this she was suspended for three years from Warsaw University
As early as 1939, when the Germans
she began aiding Jews.
She and her helpers created over
3,000 false documents to
help Jewish families, prior
to joining the organized
and the children's division.
Helping Jews was very risky—
in German-occupied Poland, all
household members risked death if
they were found to be hiding Jews,
a more severe punishment
than in other occupied
Nazi German poster in German and
Polish (Warsaw, 1942) threatening
death to any Pole who aided Jews
quot;Anchorquot; Flag/ quot;PWquot; Polska Walczy (Poland
In December 1942 the newly created Żegota (the Council to Aid Jews) nominated her
(by her cover name Jolanta) to head its children's section. As an employee of the Social
Welfare Department, she had a special permit to enter the Warsaw Ghetto to check
for signs of typhus, something the Nazis feared would spread beyond the Ghetto.
During these visits, she wore a Star of David as a sign of solidarity with the Jewish
people and so as not to call attention to herself.
She cooperated with the Children's Section of the Municipal Administration, linked
with the RGO (Central Welfare Council), a Polish relief organization that was tolerated
under German supervision. She organized the smuggling of Jewish children out of the
Ghetto, carrying them out in boxes, suitcases and trolleys.
Under the pretext of conducting inspections of sanitary conditions during a typhoid
outbreak, Sendler visited the Ghetto and smuggled out babies and small children in
ambulances and trams, sometimes disguising them as packages. She also used the old
courthouse at the edge of the Warsaw Ghetto (still standing) as one of the main routes
for smuggling out children.
The children were placed with Polish families, the Warsaw orphanage of the Sisters of
the Family of Mary, or Roman Catholic convents such as the Little Sister Servants of the
Blessed Virgin Mary Conceived Immaculate at Turkowice and Chotomów. Some
children were smuggled to priests in parish rectories. She hid lists of their names in
jars in order to keep track of their original and new identities. Żegota assured the
children that, when the war was over, they would be returned to Jewish relatives.
Sendler with some children she saved,
In 1943 Sendler was arrested by the Gestapo, severely tortured,
and sentenced to death.
Żegota saved her by bribing German guards on the way to her execution.
She was left in the woods, unconscious and with broken arms and legs.
She was listed on public bulletin boards as among those executed.
For the remainder of the war, she lived in hiding, but continued her work for the
Jewish children. After the war,
she dug up the jars containing the children's identities
and attempted to find the children and return them to their parents.
However, almost all of their parents had been killed at the
Treblinka extermination camp or had gone missing otherwise.
Irena in 1943 after her escape from Pawiak
In 1965 Sendler was recognized by
Yad Vashem as one of the Righteous
Among the Nations, which was
confirmed in 1983 by the Israeli
Supreme Court. She also was
awarded the Commander's Cross by
the Israeli Institute. It was only that
year that the Polish communist
government allowed her to travel
abroad, to receive the award in
Sendler's tree at Yad Vashem
The “Life in a Jar” Play
270 Presentations & Counting
In 1999, Megan Stewart and her friends were inspired, by their high
school history teacher Norman Conrad in southeast Kansas, to
investigate a small clipping on the life of an unsung hero, Irena
Sendler. When the students began their research, they found a
website that mentioned her. Based on their findings, the students
created a play, Life in a Jar (after her hiding place for documents).
After ten years, their play and the subsequent media attention had
made her world-famous.
Life in a Jar/The Irena Sendler Project has created a teacher's
award in the United States and Poland for the outstanding teacher
in Holocaust Education. The members of the project are now
working with the Children of the Holocaust Organization in
Warsaw on the creation of a statue in her honour, to be
completed on her birthday in 2010.
In 2007 considerable publicity accompanied Sendler's nomination for the
Nobel Peace Prize. While failed nominations for the award have not been
officially announced by the Nobel organization for 50 years, the
International Peace Research Institute, Oslo, reported in 2007 that Irena
Sendler's nominator had made the nomination public. Regardless of its
legitimacy, talk of the nomination focused a spotlight on Sendler and her
wartime achievements. (The 2007 award went to Al Gore, former Vice
President of the United States, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate
In 2005, Anna Mieszkowska wrote the
biography Mother of the Children of the
Holocaust: The Irena Sendler Story. It was
adapted for a Hallmark Hall of Fame
The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler.
On April 19, 2009, The Courageous
Heart of Irena Sendler, a Hallmark
Hall of Fame production written and
directed by John Kent Harrison and
starring Anna Paquin in the title
role, was broadcast by CBS