Every year there are fewer living witnesses to the Holocaust. Memorial organizations such as Yad Vashem are working feverishly to collect as many testimonies as possible to memorialize the names of the victims and honor the Righteous Gentiles who risked their lives to save Jewish lives. These activities demand a tremendous amount of time and effort. Sometimes however, information comes in unexpected ways. This was the case regarding the story of Irena Sendler who was honored for her role in saving over 2500 Jewish children from the Warsaw ghetto in 1963 by Yad Vashem and then forgotten. It was only when a group of non-Jewish schoolgirls from Uniontown Kansas pursued a rumor of Sendler’s activities that the incredible story of her bravery was publicized to the world.
Irena Sendler was a young social worker in Warsaw when the Nazis invaded in 1939. She joined the Zagota underground which specialized in assisting persecuted Jews. She helped find hiding places for these Jews and obtained false papers which allowed them to integrate into the Polish society. When the Nazis created the Warsaw ghetto in 1940 Sendler procured papers that identified her as a nurse who specialized in infectious diseases. She was then allowed to enter and exit the ghetto freely.
At first Sendler smuggled food and medicines into the ghetto but it quickly became apparent that such aid was a drop in the bucket. Together with her Zagota comrades she decided that she could save more lives if she could smuggle people out of the ghetto. As the head of Jewish child welfare division of Zagota Sendler decided to concentrate on smuggling children out of the ghetto. Children, Zagota felt, were easier to smuggle out, easier to move from place to place and easier to hide in Polish orphanages and convents.
Sendler began to pick up street orphans. She sedated them and hid them in luggage, toolboxes. Beneath her tram seat and in carts under garbage and barking dogs in order to smuggle them out of the ghetto. Older children were led under the ghetto walls through underground tunnels and sewers. As time passed Sendler started to approach Jewish parents to ask them to allow her to take their children out of the ghetto. Sendler went door to door within the ghetto in her quest to bring children to freedom. The parents were distraught — many refused Sendler because they believed that their children would have a better chance of survival if they stayed together. Others couldn’t bear being parted from their children.
Sendler herself remembered those interactions as excruciatingly painful “I talked the mothers out of their children” she reminisced. “Those scenes over whether to give a child away were heart-rending. Sometimes, they wouldn’t give me the child. Their first question was, ‘What guarantee is there that the child will live?’ I said, ‘None. I don’t even know if I will get out of the ghetto alive today.”
Sendler carefully recorded all of the names of the children that she rescued on slips of tissue paper, along with the locations in which they were hidden. She placed these pieces of papers in glass jars and buried them in her garden. She hoped that, after the war, the children would be reunited with surviving family members or, at the very least, with their Jewish community. Some children were hidden with
sympathetic Polish families while others were placed for safekeeping in institutions.
In October 1943, after the Warsaw ghetto had been destroyed, Sendler was arrested by the Gestapo. She was tortured in the notorious Piawiak prison but she withstood the torture and didn’t reveal any information about the whereabouts of the children, or about her Zagota comrades. The Nazis sentenced Sendler to death but Zagota was able to bribe a German guard and smuggle Sendler out of the prison. Sendler remained in hiding throughout the final months of the war.
Yad Vashem honored Sendler in 1963 but after the awards ceremony she returned to Warsaw and her wartime activities were forgotten. In 1999
a group of Kansas high school students researched Sendler’s actions during the war and developed a project, Life in a Jar, which honored Sendler’s heroism and bravery. The project has evolved into a book, a website and a performance which has been viewed by thousands of people worldwide.