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;[1] divorced)
Stefan Zgrzembski (1947–1959; divorced; 3 children)
Mieczyslaw Sendler (1960s; divorced)
Parents 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)[2] was a Polish nurse and social worker who served in the Polish Underground during World War II, and as head of children's section of Żegota,[3][4] an underground resistance organization in German-occupied Warsaw. Assisted by some two dozen other Żegota members, Sendler smuggled some 2,500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto and then provided them with false identity documents and with housing outside the Ghetto, saving those children during the Holocaust.[5]

The Nazis eventually discovered her activities, tortured her, and sentenced her to death, but she managed to evade execution and survive the war. In 1965, Sendler was recognized by the State of Israel as Righteous among the Nations. Late in life she was awarded Poland's highest honor for her wartime humanitarian efforts. She appears on a silver 2008 Polish commemorative coin honoring some of the Polish Righteous among the Nations.

Highlights from personal life[edit]

Irena Sendler was born as Irena Krzyżanowska on 15 February 1910 in Warsaw to Dr. Stanisław Krzyżanowski, a physician, and his wife, Janina. Her father died in February 1917 from typhus contracted while treating patients his colleagues refused to treat for fear of contracting the disease, among them many Jews. After his death, Jewish community leaders offered to help her mother pay for Sendler's education. Sendler studied Polish literature at Warsaw University, and joined the Polish Socialist Party. She opposed the ghetto-bench system that existed at some prewar Polish universities and defaced her grade card. As a result of her public protest, she was suspended from the University of Warsaw for three years.[6]

She married Mieczyslaw Sendler, but they divorced in 1947. She married Stefan Zgrzembski, a Jewish friend from her university days. They 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. The rematch also failed. She lived in Warsaw for the rest of her life and was survived by her daughter, Janina "Janka" Zgrzembska.[7][8][9]

World War II[edit]

During the German occupation of Poland, Sendler lived in Warsaw. Prior to that, she had lived in Otwock and Tarczyn while working for urban Social Welfare departments. As early as 1939, when the Nazis had invaded Poland, she began aiding Jews. She and her helpers created more than 3,000 false documents to help Jewish families, prior to her joining the organized Żegota resistance and the children's division.[10] Helping Jews in Nazi-occupied Poland meant all household members risked death if they were found hiding Jews, a punishment far more severe than in other occupied European countries.

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

In August 1943, Sendler (known by her nom de guerre: Jolanta) was nominated by the underground Polish Council to Aid Jews Żegota, to head its Jewish children's section.[10] 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.[11] 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.

Jewish children in the Warsaw Ghetto

Sendler cooperated with others in Warsaw's Municipal Social Services department, and the RGO (Central Welfare Council), a Polish relief organization that was tolerated under German supervision. She and her co-workers organized the smuggling of Jewish children out of the Ghetto. Under the pretext of conducting inspections of sanitary conditions during a typhus outbreak, Sendler and her co-workers visited the Ghetto and smuggled out babies and small children in ambulances and trams, sometimes disguising them as packages.[9]

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[12] at Turkowice and Chotomów. Sendler worked closely with Zofia Kossak-Szczucka, a resistance fighter and writer, and with Matylda Getter, Mother Provincial of the Franciscan Sisters of the Family of Mary.[13] Sendler and her colleagues helped rescue about 2,500 Jewish children in different education and care facilities for children in Anin, Białołęka, Chotomów, Międzylesie, Płudy, Sejny, Wilno, and other cities.[13] Some children were smuggled to priests in parish rectories. Mrs. Sendler’s group of about 30 volunteers, mostly women, managed to slip hundreds of infants, young children, and teenagers to safety.

“She was the inspiration and the prime mover for the whole network that saved those 2,500 Jewish children,” Debórah Dwork, the Rose professor of Holocaust history at Clark University in Massachusetts, said. Professor Dwork, the author of “Children With a Star” (Yale University Press, 1991), said about 400 children had been directly smuggled out by Mrs. Sendler. She and her co-workers buried lists of the hidden children 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.[14]

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. The Żegota saved her by bribing the guards on the way to her execution. She was also listed on public bulletin boards as among those executed. She lived in hiding for the rest of the war, continuing her work for Jewish children. 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. Almost all of the children's parents had been killed at the Treblinka extermination camp or gone missing.[citation needed]


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

In 1965, Sendler was recognized 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.[15] She was also awarded the Commander's Cross by the Israeli Institute. That same year the Polish 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 (7 November 2001).

Irena Sendler in 2005

On 14 March 2007, Sendler was honored 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. Polish President Lech Kaczyński stated she "can justly be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize." Also in 2007 the Polish government presented her as a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize. This initiative was officially supported by the State of Israel through its prime minister, Ehud Olmert, and the Organization of Holocaust Survivors in Israel residents. The authorities of Oświęcim (Auschwitz in German) expressed support for this nomination, because Irena Sendler was considered one of the last living heroes of her generation, and demonstrated a strength, conviction and extraordinary values against an evil of an extraordinary nature. She was passed over that year for the Nobel Peace Prize, which was given to Al Gore, and to the Intergovernmental Panel on Global Warming.[16][17]

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

On 11 April 2007, she received the Order of the Smile (the oldest recipient of the award). 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 organizations 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. Sendler was the last survivor of the Children's Section of the Żegota Council to Assist Jews, which she had headed from August 1943 until the end of the war. Irena Sendler died in Warsaw on 12 May 2008, aged 98.

PBS documentary[edit]

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, Gestapo headquarters and the prison in Pawiak, along with rare footage of the city during the German occupation to re-create the events of Sendler's life. This is the first historical documentary made outside Poland to record the lives of Sendler and the women who worked with her to save the children of the Warsaw ghetto. 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 their operations. The film made its national U.S. broadcast premiere through KQED Presents on PBS in May 2011 in honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day[18] and went on to receive several awards, including the 2012 Gracie Award for outstanding public television documentary.

Life in a Jar[edit]

Main article: Life in a Jar

In 1999, students at a high school in Uniontown, Kansas produced a play based on research into Irena Sendler's life story titled Life in a Jar. It was adapted for television as The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler.[19][20][21] Actress Anna Paquin played Sendler. Her story was largely unknown to the world until the students developed The Irena Sendler Project,[22][23] producing their performance Life in a Jar. This student-produced drama has now been performed over 285 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, to make Sendler's story known to the world.[24]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Info re Irena Krzyżanowska's marriage to Mieczyslaw Sendler
  2. ^ Irena Sendler. An unsung heroine. Lest We Forget. Retrieved 2 November 2012.
  3. ^ Mordecai Paldiel, The Path of the Righteous: Gentile Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust, Ktav Publishing House (January 1993), ISBN 0-88125-376-6
  4. ^ Yad Vashem Shoa Resource Center, "Activites Żegota" PDF file, Żegota, page 4/34 of the Report.
  5. ^ Baczynska, Gabriela (12 May 2008). Jon Boyle, ed. "Sendler, savior of Warsaw Ghetto children, dies". Reuters. Retrieved Sep 17, 2013. 
  6. ^ Staff writer (May 22nd 2008), The Economist obituary. Retrieved April 8, 2013.
  7. ^ Louette Harding (1 August 2008). "Irena Sendler: a Holocaust heroine". The Daily Mail online, Associated Newspapers. Retrieved 8 April 2013. 
  8. ^ David M. Dastych (May 16, 2008). "Irena Sendler: Compassion and Courage". Editorial. Retrieved 8 April 2013. 
  9. ^ a b Monika Scislowska, Associated Press Writer (May 12, 2008). "Polish Holocaust hero dies at age 98". USA Today. Retrieved April 8, 2013. 
  10. ^ a b Irene Tomaszewski & Tecia Werblowski, Zegota: The Council to Aid Jews in Occupied Poland 1942–1945, Price-Patterson, ISBN 1-896881-15-7.
  11. ^ Richard Z. Chesnoff, "The Other Schindlers: Steven Spielberg's epic film focuses on only one of many unsung heroes", U.S. News and World Report, 13 March 1994.
  12. ^ L.S.I.C. at the Wayback Machine (archived October 26, 2009)
  13. ^ a b 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
  14. ^
  15. ^ "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. 
  16. ^ Healy, Lynne M. "Irena Sendler" in International Social Work: Professional Action in an Interdependent World. Oxford University Press, 2001, p. 150.
  17. ^ "Nobel Peace Prize 2007", Norwegian Nobel Institute.
  18. ^ [1]
  19. ^ The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler at
  20. ^ Hallmark Hall of Fame news release
  21. ^ "The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler" on IMDB
  22. ^ Life in a Jar official website
  23. ^ Life in a Jar information
  24. ^ Lowell Milken Center Website About Us Page


  • 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]