She even managed to survive torture and a death sentence.
At the onset of World War II, the Germans outlawed helping Jews and in Poland it was punishable by death. And not only the death of the one offering assistance, but the death of their entire family.
Despite the imminent danger, one woman risked everything and ended up saving the lives of over 2,000 Jewish children.
Known as the “female Oskar Schindler,” Irena Sendler first began her crusade prior to the war while working for the Social Welfare Department in Poland. Along with a group of co-workers that she organized, Sendler created falsified papers for Jewish families. Over four years she fabricated 3,000 documents, even after the death penalty was introduced in 1941.
In 1943, Sendler joined the Zegota, an underground organization devoted to helping Jewish people escape the Holocaust. Under a fake name, Jolanta, she was elected to head the Jewish children’s section.
Due to her job with the Social Welfare Department, Sendler had authorization to enter the Warsaw Ghetto. Germans feared that typhus, which spread throughout the ghettos at the time, would spread to the soldiers. So they allowed doctors in to check for symptoms and treat it.
Under the guise of performing these inspections, Sendler would enter the ghettos and smuggle out babies and small children. They would usually load them into ambulances or trams, but depending on the situation the children could even be loaded into packages or suitcases.
Over 2,500 children were smuggled out of the ghettos, at least 400 of them by Sendler herself.
Families and children being forced into the Warsaw Ghetto
The smuggled children were then dispersed among friends of the Zegota. Some were placed in the care of Christian Polish families, and given Christian names. They were also taught Christian prayers and values in case they were tested.
Some of the children were sent to the Warsaw orphanage of the Sisters of the Family of Mary, or similar Roman Catholic convents and schools. They were also renamed and taught Christian traditons to mask their heritage.
However, Sendler’s ultimate goal was to keep the children safe until the end of the war, and then return them to their families, so she kept careful records of the children’s whereabouts, new names, and given names. She kept the lists in jars buried underground.
Sendler was arrested in late 1943 and severely tortured by the Gestapo, though she managed to keep the children’s identities safe. Despite being tortured, Sendler never named any of her comrades or the children they saved.
Sendler even managed to survive being sentenced to death. As the Gestapo was bringing her to her execution, fellow members of the Zegota saved her life by bribing the officers. Even though her work had almost cost her her life, Sendler returned to work for the Zegota after her escape, under a different name.
Sendler took a job as a nurse after the war.
After the war, Irena Sendler continued helping people by taking a job as a nurse. Despite working, she still attempted to make good on her promise to return the children to their families but learned that almost all of the families had been killed at the Treblinka concentration camp, or were missing.
For her efforts, Sendler was recognized as one of the Polish Righteous Among the Nations, an award for outstanding citizens begun in 1963. However she was unable to travel to Israel to receive it because of travel restrictions imposed by Poland’s communist government. She finally was able to accept it in 1983.
In 2003, Pope John Paul II personally wrote to her to thank her for her efforts, and later that year she received Poland’s highest civilian honor, The Order of the White Eagle. She was also given the Jan Karski award for “Courage and Heart” by the American Center for Polish Culture.
In 2009, Sendler (left) was reunited with some of the children she helped to save, all of whom said they owed her their lives.
Though she’s received countless other awards, Sendler has remained humble about her contribution to the Jewish community.
“I was brought up to believe that a person must be rescued when drowning, regardless of religion and nationality,” she said in a 2007 interview, one year before her death at age 98.
“The term ‘hero’ irritates me greatly. The opposite is true. I continue to have pangs of conscience that I did so little.”