"It was easier to hide a tank than a Jewish child in the Holocaust”
Irena Sendler was already wearing a bullseye in occupied Poland. A known Jewish sympathizer and activist with a history of flouting the establishment when it came to doing what is right, she would have been immediately on the Gestapo’s radar as a potential Jewish sympathizer. And indeed, as a member of the Warsaw Welfare Department, Irena was already working under the table to funnel goods and supplies to endangered Jewish families. Most would say she had already done enough; that she had already helped more than the vast majority of people who either did nothing or actively collaborated with the Nazis; that the danger was already too close.
But Irena felt the complete opposite. She felt the overwhelming need to do more.
It was in 1942 after the creation of the Warsaw Ghetto that Irena began to work hand in hand with the Żegota, the underground Council to Aid Jews, that was dedicated to subverting the Nazi occupation and assisting as many Jews as possible. It has to be stressed how dangerous this was, the Żegota was an illegal organization. Association with them, let along actively providing them aid, would be punishable by imprisonment and execution. And Irena with her background and reputation would be closely watched for such ties. Understanding this is key to understanding just how courageous Irena’s efforts truly were.
Using her position in the welfare department, Irena secured a certificate as a disease inspector, one of the few plausible reasons a Polish civilian could have for entering and leaving the Ghetto. It was an undesirable job for most, one with a high risk of illness and personal danger, but perfect for Irena. It was this access that would give her and the Żegota organization the chance to save many lives.
Irena began visiting the Ghetto daily, using the opportunity to gather information, ferry messages from the people trapped there to their allies in the Żegota, and distribute desperately needed food and medicine. While she knew the situation in the Ghetto was dire, seeing the starvation, sickness, and misery firsthand had a shattering impact on Irena. Now a young mother herself, she could not bear the thought of children suffering under those conditions.
It would have been impossible for Irena to smuggle out a full-grown adult, there was no way she could walk into the Ghetto alone and saunter out with a "friend” tagging along. And then there would be the difficulty of them hiding, securing false documents, identities, work histories and such. But children, those she could smuggle out in a gunny sack, or in a box used to ship goods - if nobody looked too close anyway. And 1942 Poland was full of orphans with unclear histories and shoddy paperwork, families that could take in a child to blend in with their own. The burden of documentation for children was much less severe than for adults. it was possible.
So that’s exactly what she did. She went into the Ghetto in her ambulance and one-by-one she smuggled children out of that pit. She cultivated a small network of sympathizers inside the Social Welfare Department to help forge documents and names for the children, and worked with the Żegota and local Christian churches to secure willing foster families and orphanages to hide the children.
Again, the danger of this for everyone involved cannot be overstated. Taking in a Jewish child was like taking in a bomb without a visible timer, a hazard that could blow up your entire family with one slip, one loose conversation overheard by the wrong person, one unlucky inspection from the Gestapo. But Irena was a force, so strong were her convictions, her passion for helping these children, that as she said herself later, "No one ever refused to take a child from me."
Still, this was hard, exhausting work. Imagine the desperation of a Jewish mother sending her small child to be carried out of her home in a rucksack or even in the case of at least one infant, a toolbox, by a stranger. The strain Irena felt day-after-day watching families make the impossible decision to try and save their children, knowing they would likely never see them again. She needed something to keep her faith going. For Irena, that was a jar filled with names.
Written in code on small slips of paper sealed in jars were the names of every child she helped save. Their real Jewish names, their families, and when and where they were taken. This was damning evidence to have on hand if her home was ever searched, but Irene felt it was important to have some kind of documentation to these lives. It was the hope that one day these families could be reunited.
These jars were buried under an apple tree in her neighbour’s lawn. All in all, they contained the names of 2,500 children that Irene personally had a hand in saving.
It wasn’t to last. The Nazis eventually caught up with Irene in the fall of 1943. She was arrested and tortured in unspeakable ways. Despite her suffering, she never gave up the names and locations of the hidden Jewish children or her collaborators. Frustrated, the Gestapo shipped her off to prison awaiting execution.
In what can only be considered a miracle, Irene survived. Members of the Żegota were able to bribe the German’s to delay the execution and engineered an escape. Despite being one of the Gestapo’s most important prisoners, she was able to slip through the cracks. She spent the rest of the war on the run, always looking over her shoulder for German officers.
It is an incredible story, but perhaps what is most impressive about Irena’s efforts is her extreme humility. Irena did not seek any kind of gratitude or accolades for her actions. In fact, despite being recognized by Yad Vashem in 1965, she remained a relatively obscure figure in terms of Holocaust heroes compared to others like Oscar Schindler. It wasn’t until the year 2000 when an American high-school class "rediscovered” her that her exploits would be widely known in North America. The class, tasked with looking into the history of the Holocaust, saw a figure that quoted Irena as saving 2,500 lives which they believed must have been a typo. Surely, they meant 250 lives, right? Looking into the mystery, they discovered that not only was there no typo, but that Irena, now 90 years old was still alive and well, still living in Warsaw among family members!
The class would go on to create a play called Life in a Jar about Irena and ignite an international outpouring or recognition to her work. Including a call from the Pope, multiple articles and television programs, and several awards and plaques.
Irena passed at the age of 98, grateful but never entirely comfortable with the accolades. She said, "every child saved with my help is the justification of my existence on this Earth, and not a title to glory.” All of these years later, she still never saw what she did as personally heroic, but her duty to her fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. A remarkable perspective from someone who lived her principals to the fullest.