Irena Sendler

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Irena Sendler
Irena Sendlerowa 1942.jpg
Born Irena Krzyżanowska
15 February 1910
Otwock, Poland
Died 12 May 2008 (aged 98)
Warsaw, Poland
Occupation Social worker, humanitarian
Religion Roman Catholic
Spouse(s) Mieczyslaw Sendler (1931–1947; divorced)
Stefan Zgrzembski (1947–1959; divorced; 3 children)
Mieczyslaw Sendler (1960s; divorced)
Parent(s) Stanisław Krzyżanowski
Janina Krzyżanowska

Irena Sendler (née Krzyżanowska, also referred to as Irena Sendlerowa in Poland, nom de guerre Jolanta; 15 February 1910 – 12 May 2008)[1] was a Polish nurse and social worker who served in the Polish Underground in German-occupied Warsaw during World War II, and was head of the children's section of Żegota,[2][3] the Polish Council to Aid Jews (Polish: Rada Pomocy Żydom), which was active from 1942 to 1945.

Assisted by some two dozen other Żegota members, Sendler smuggled approximately 2,500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto and then provided them with false identity documents and shelter outside the Ghetto, saving those children from the Holocaust.[4]

The German occupiers eventually discovered her activities - she was arrested by the Gestapo, tortured and sentenced to death, but managed to evade execution and survive the war. In 1965, Sendler was recognised by the State of Israel as Righteous among the Nations. Late in life she was awarded the Order of the White Eagle (Poland's highest honour) for her wartime humanitarian efforts.

Highlights from Sendler's personal life[edit]

Irena Sendler was born as Irena Krzyżanowska on 15 February 1910 in Otwock near Warsaw[5] to Dr Stanisław Krzyżanowski, a physician, and his wife, Janina.[6] Her father died in February 1917 from typhus contracted while treating patients.[7] After his death, Jewish community leaders offered to help her mother pay for Sendler's education, though her mother declined their help.[6] Sendler studied Polish literature at Warsaw University, and joined the Polish Socialist Party.[6] She opposed the ghetto-bench system that existed at some pre-war Polish universities and defaced her grade card. As a result of this public protest, she was suspended from the University of Warsaw for three years.[8]

She married Mieczysław Sendler in 1931,[6] but they divorced in 1947.[9] She then married Stefan Zgrzembski, a Jewish friend from her university days, by whom she had three children, Janina, Andrzej (who died in infancy) and Adam (who died of heart failure in 1999). In 1959 she divorced Zgrzembski and remarried her first husband, Mieczyslaw Sendler.[10]

Irena Sendler lived in Warsaw for the remainder of her life. She died on 12 May 2008, aged 98, and is buried in Warsaw's Powązki Cemetery. She was survived by her daughter, Janina "Janka" Zgrzembska.[11][12][13]

World War II[edit]

Nazi German poster in German and Polish (Warsaw, 1942) threatening death to any Pole who aided Jews

Sendler moved to Warsaw prior to the outbreak of World War II, and worked for urban Social Welfare departments.[6] She began aiding Jews soon after the German invasion in 1939,[6] by leading a group of co-workers who created more than 3,000 false documents to help Jewish families.[14] This work was done at huge risk, as (since October 1941) giving any kind of assistance to Jews in German-occupied Poland was punishable by death - not just for the person who was providing the help, but also for their entire family or household (Poland was the only country in German-occupied Europe in which such a death penalty was applied).[15]

Jewish children in the Warsaw Ghetto

In August 1943, Sendler (known by her nom de guerre: Jolanta) was nominated by Żegota (the underground organization also known as the Council to Aid Jews) to head its Jewish children's section.[14] As an employee of the Social Welfare Department, she had a special permit to enter the Warsaw Ghetto to check for signs of typhus — a disease the Germans feared would spread beyond the Ghetto.[16] During these visits, she wore a Star of David as a sign of solidarity with the Jewish people.[5] Under the pretext of conducting inspections of sanitary conditions within the Ghetto, Sendler and her co-workers smuggled out babies and small children, sometimes in ambulances and trams, sometimes hiding them in packages and suitcases, and using various other means.[13]

Jewish 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.[17] Sendler worked closely with a group of about 30 volunteers, mostly women, who included Zofia Kossak-Szczucka, a resistance fighter and writer, and Matylda Getter, Mother Provincial of the Franciscan Sisters of the Family of Mary.[18]

"Every child saved with my help is the justification of my existence on this Earth, and not a title to glory." (Irena Sendler)

According to American historian Debórah Dwork, Sendler was “the inspiration and the prime mover for the whole network that saved those 2,500 Jewish children.”[19] About 400 of the children were directly smuggled out by Sendler herself.[19] She and her co-workers buried lists of the hidden children in jars in order to keep track of their original and new identities. The aim was to return the children to their original families when the war was over.[8]

In 1943, Sendler was arrested by the Gestapo and severely tortured. The Gestapo beat her brutally, fracturing her feet and legs in the process. Despite this, she refused to betray any of her comrades or the children they rescued, and was sentenced to death by firing squad. Żegota saved her life by bribing the guards on the way to her execution.[5] After the war, she and her co-workers gathered all of their records with the names and locations of the hidden Jewish children and gave them to their Żegota colleague Adolf Berman and his staff at the Central Committee of Polish Jews. However, almost all of the children's parents had been killed at the Treblinka extermination camp or gone missing.[6][5]


Sendler with some people she saved as children, Warsaw, 2005

In 1965, Sendler was recognised by Yad Vashem as one of the Polish Righteous among the Nations. A tree was planted in her honor at the entrance to the Avenue of the Righteous at Yad Vashem.[20] She was also awarded the Commander's Cross by the Israeli Institute. That same year Poland's communist government allowed her to travel abroad, to receive the award in Israel.

In 2003, Pope John Paul II sent Sendler a personal letter praising her wartime efforts. On 10 October 2003 she received the Order of the White Eagle, Poland's highest civilian decoration, and the Jan Karski Award, "For Courage and Heart", given by the American Center of Polish Culture in Washington, D.C. She was also awarded the Commander's Cross with Star of the Order of Polonia Restituta.

On 14 March 2007, Sendler was honoured by the Polish Senate. Aged 97, she was unable to leave her nursing home to receive the honor, but she sent a statement through Elżbieta Ficowska, whom Sendler had helped to save as an infant. On 11 April 2007, she received the Order of the Smile (the oldest recipient of the award). She was also symbolically nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

In May 2009, Sendler was posthumously granted the Audrey Hepburn Humanitarian Award. The award, named in honor of the late actress and UNICEF ambassador, is presented to persons and organisations recognised for helping children. In its citation, the Audrey Hepburn Foundation recalled Sendler's heroic efforts which saved some 2,500 Jewish children during the German occupation of Poland in World War II.


Irena Sendler in 2005

Irena Sendler's achievements remained largely unknown to the world until, in 1999, students at a high school in Uniontown, Kansas produced a play based on their research into her life story, which they called Life in a Jar.[21][22] This drama has now been performed hundreds of times all across the United States, Canada and Poland. Sendler's message of love and respect has grown through the performances of the play, with over 1,500 references to her story appearing in the media, a student-developed website with over 30 million hits, national teaching awards in Poland and the United States, and an educational foundation, the Lowell Milken Center.[23]

The play was adapted for television as The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler, in which actress Anna Paquin played Sendler.[24][25][26]

American filmmaker Mary Skinner began working on a historical documentary film based on Sendler's memoir as told to biographer Anna Mieszkowska in 2003. Irena Sendler, In the Name of Their Mothers features the last interviews Sendler gave before her death. The documentary also featured three of Sendler's co-workers, and several of the grown Jewish children they saved. Filmed in Poland and the United States with Polish cinematographers Andrzej Wolf and Sławomir Grunberg, the film uses evocative location footage of Sendler's wartime apartment, Żegota headquarters, the Gestapo headquarters in Warsaw and the Pawiak prison, along with rare footage of Warsaw during the German occupation to re-create the events of Sendler's life. Skinner recorded over 70 hours of interview material for the film and spent seven years consulting archives, historical experts, and eyewitnesses in the United States and Poland to uncover many unknown details about the Sendler network's operations. The film made its national U.S. broadcast premiere through KQED Presents on PBS in May 2011 in honour of Holocaust Remembrance Day[27] and went on to receive several awards, including the 2012 Gracie Award for outstanding public television documentary.[28]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ Irena Sendler. An unsung heroine. Lest We Forget. Retrieved 2 November 2012.
  2. ^ Mordecai Paldiel, The Path of the Righteous: Gentile Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust, Ktav Publishing House (January 1993), ISBN 0-88125-376-6
  3. ^ Yad Vashem Shoa Resource Center, "Activites Żegota" PDF file, Żegota, page 4/34 of the Report.
  4. ^ Baczynska, Gabriela (12 May 2008). Jon Boyle, ed. "Sendler, savior of Warsaw Ghetto children, dies". Reuters. Retrieved Sep 17, 2013. 
  5. ^ a b c d "Irena Sendler". 
  6. ^ a b c d e f g "Polscy Sprawiedliwi - Przywracanie Pamięci". 
  7. ^ "Biografia Ireny Sendlerowej". 
  8. ^ a b Staff writer (May 22nd 2008), The Economist obituary. Retrieved April 8, 2013.
  9. ^ Anna Mieszkowska (January 2011). Irena Sendler: Mother of the Children of the Holocaust. Praeger. p. 26. ISBN 978-0-313-38593-3. 
  10. ^ "Irena Sendler: we tell you the story of a Holocaust heroine". Mail Online. 
  11. ^ Louette Harding (1 August 2008). "Irena Sendler: a Holocaust heroine". The Daily Mail online, Associated Newspapers. Retrieved 8 April 2013. 
  12. ^ David M. Dastych (May 16, 2008). "Irena Sendler: Compassion and Courage". Editorial. Retrieved 8 April 2013. 
  13. ^ a b Monika Scislowska, Associated Press Writer (May 12, 2008). "Polish Holocaust hero dies at age 98". USA Today. Retrieved April 8, 2013. 
  14. ^ a b Irene Tomaszewski & Tecia Werblowski, Zegota: The Council to Aid Jews in Occupied Poland 1942–1945, Price-Patterson, ISBN 1-896881-15-7.[page needed]
  15. ^ Ewa Kurek (2 August 2012). Polish-Jewish Relations 1939-1945: Beyond the Limits of Solidarity. iUniverse. p. 305. ISBN 978-1-4759-3832-6. 
  16. ^ Richard Z. Chesnoff, "The Other Schindlers: Steven Spielberg's epic film focuses on only one of many unsung heroes" (archive), U.S. News and World Report, 13 March 1994.
  17. ^ L.S.I.C. at the Wayback Machine (archived October 26, 2009)
  18. ^ Mordecai Paldiel "Churches and the Holocaust: unholy teaching, good samaritans, and reconciliation" pp. 209–10, KTAV Publishing House, Inc., 2006, ISBN 978-0-88125-908-7
  19. ^ a b
  20. ^ "Smuggling Children out of the Ghetto. Irena Sendler. Poland". The Righteous Among the Nations. Jerusalem: Yad Vashem The Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority. 2012. Retrieved 2 November 2012. 
  21. ^ "Life in a Jar - The Courageous Story of Irena Sendler". Life in a Jar. 
  22. ^ Life in a Jar information
  23. ^ Lowell Milken Center Website About Us Page
  24. ^ The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler at
  25. ^ "Hallmark Corporate Information - Error". 
  26. ^ Richard Maurer (ram-30) (19 April 2009). "The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler (TV Movie 2009)". IMDb. 
  27. ^ "Search Results sendler  : KQED's Pressroom". KQED's Pressroom. 
  28. ^


  • Yitta Halberstam & Judith Leventhal, Small Miracles of the Holocaust,The Lyons Press; 1st edition (13 August 2008), ISBN 978-1-59921-407-8
  • Richard Lukas, Forgotten Survivors: Polish Christians Remember the Nazi Occupation ISBN 978-0-7006-1350-2
  • Anna Mieszkowska, IRENA SENDLER Mother of the Holocaust Children Publisher: Praeger; Tra edition (18 November 2010) Language: English ISBN 978-0-313-38593-3
  • Mordecai Paldiel, The Path of the Righteous: Gentile Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust, Ktav Publishing House (January 1993), ISBN 9780881253764
  • Irene Tomaszewski & Tecia Werblowski, Zegota: The Council to Aid Jews in Occupied Poland 1942–1945, Price-Patterson, ISBN 1-896881-15-7

External links[edit]