Thursday, March 11, 2010
Irena Sendler, The Female Oskar Schindler
Irena Sendler was a Roman Catholic who created a network of rescuers in Poland who smuggled about 2,500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw ghetto in World War II, some of them in coffins.
Mrs. Sendler was head of the children’s bureau of Zegota, an underground organization set up to save Jews after the Nazis invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939. Soon after the invasion, approximately 450,000 Jews, about 30 percent of Warsaw’s population, were crammed into a tiny section of the city and barricaded behind seven-foot-high walls.
On April 19, 1943, the Nazis began what they expected would be a rapid liquidation of the ghetto. It took them more than a month to quell the Warsaw ghetto uprising. By then, only about 55,000 Jews were still alive; most of them were sent to death camps.
Also by then, however, Mrs. Sendler’s group of about 30 volunteers, mostly women, had managed to slip hundreds of infants, young children and teenagers to safety.
Irena Sendler, as a non-Jewish social worker, had gone into the Warsaw Ghetto, talked Jewish parents and grandparents out of their children, rightly saying that all were going to die in the Ghetto or in death camps, taking the children past the Nazi guards or using one of the many means of escape from the Ghetto-the old courthouse for example- and then adopting them into the homes of Polish families or hiding them in convents and orphanages. She made lists of the children's real names and put the lists in jars, then buried the jars in a garden, so that someday she could dig up the jars and find the children to tell them of their real identity. The Nazis captured her and she was beaten severely, but the Polish underground bribed a guard to release her, and she entered into hiding.
Irena had made false documents for people in the Warsaw area from 1939 to 1942, helping save many, BEFORE she joined the underground Zegota and started saving children.
In 1965, Mrs. Sendler became one of the first of the so-called righteous gentiles honored by the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. Poland’s Communist leaders did not allow her to travel to Israel; she was presented the award in 1983.
Irena Krzyzanowska was born in Otwock, in what is now Poland, on Feb. 15, 1910. Her father was a physician. Her marriage to Mieczyslaw Sendler ended in divorce after World War II. Her second husband, Stefan Zgrzembski, died before her. She is survived by her daughter, Janka, and a granddaughter.
Irena passed away on May 12, 2008 at the age of 98. She was buried in a Warsaw, Poland cemetery. Her family and many of the rescued children continue to tell her story of courage and valor. The Life in a Jar students continue to share her legacy through the play, the web site, through schools and study guides, and world media.
American filmmaker Mary Skinner began working on a historical documentary film based on Irena Sendler's memoir as told to Anna Mieszkowska in 2003. "Irena Sendler, In the Name of Their Mothers"