Life: February 15, 1910 – May 12, 2008
Why You Should Know Her: Irena Sendler was a Polish nurse and social worker who worked with Poland’s underground during World War II, saving over 2,500 Jewish children from the Nazis.
Born in 1910 in Warsaw, Poland, Irena Sendler lost her father at a young age. Dr. Sendler died from typhus, which he contracted after caring for patients – many of them Jewish – who other doctors refused to treat. Because of Dr. Sendler’s selfless actions, leaders of the Jewish community helped pay for young Irena’s education.
When the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, Irena began aiding Warsaw’s Jews. She first helped create more than 3,000 false documents to help Jews avoid persecution – or worse – by the Nazi occupiers. The help she provided – if it had been found out by the Germans – would have meant certain death for Irena and her family.
By 1943, however, Irena was chosen to head the children’s division of Zegota, the underground Polish Council to Aid Jews. Wearing a Star of David, in solidarity with the Jewish community, Irena’s job was to check Warsaw’s ghetto for typhus.
As she made her rounds checking for the dreaded disease, Irena was able to smuggle out babies and young children – all of whom would have been murdered in Hitler’s extermination camps. Sneaking the children out of the ghetto – even disguising small ones as packages – Irena placed them in the homes of Polish families or in convents. In order to preserve the children’s identities, so they could be reunited with their parents after the war, lists of the saved children were buried in jars. In all, more than 2,500 Jewish children were saved from certain death.
Irena’s heroic actions, however, were discovered by the Gestapo. She was brutally beaten and tortured, but refused to divulge others who aided her, and then was sentenced to death. As she was headed to face the firing squad, Irena was spared when members of the Zegota bribed the German guards to release her. Publicly, she was listed as having been executed, but for the next two years, she lived in hiding while continuing to help Poland’s Jewish children.
In 1965, Irena Sendler was named Righteous Among the Nations – one among many honors she received over the rest of her life – for having selflessly saved the lives of so many innocents, even in the face of such danger and evil.