When the Luftwaffe bombers started piercing the sky of Poland on that unfateful day of September 1, 1939, many Poles, especially those who were Polish Jews, listened to the sound of doom in the form of marching Nazi troops’ feet towards Warsaw. Justified by the propaganda that the Polish people oppressed ethnic Germans, they invaded the city, did their ethnic cleansing, and cramped the 200,000 Jews in the Warsaw ghetto fenced by a 10-foot wall of barbed wire. Many were scared, but some did not let their fear take over and braved their way to help others. Irena Sendler was one of them.

Irena of Warsaw

Irena Sendler (Poland) on Christmas Eve of 1944. She was an anti-nazi activist. The State of Israel recognized her as Righteous Among the Nations. (Unknown photographer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Warsaw was the first place that Irena knew when she breathed her first on February 15, 1910. She studied law for two years before switching to Polish literature at the University of Warsaw. There, she learned and established her opposition to the ghetto benches system practiced in the 1930s at many Polish institutions of higher learning. She even defied the “non-Jewish” label on her grade card.

She joined the Union of Polish Democratic Youth in 1928 and, during the war, became a member of the Polish Socialist Party. It was one of the reasons why she was repeatedly refused employment in the Warsaw school system. In addition, the university issued harmful recommendations on her and her radically leftist views.

Soon, she was employed in the Section for Mother and Child Assistance at the Citizen Committee for Helping the Unemployed, working as a legal counselor and social helper. There, Sendler mostly worked in the field, visiting the impoverished neighborhoods of Warsaw and helping the socially disadvantaged women. However, when the government abolished the section in 1935, she and other employees of the City of Warsaw were transferred as employees in the Department of Social Welfare and Public Health.

German Invasion

That was where she was working when the Germans started invading Poland, working as the department’s Senior Administrator. So it wasn’t a surprise that she joined the Zegota, the Council to Aid Jews organized by the Polish underground resistance. She used her employment in the Social Welfare Department to access the Warsaw ghetto through special permits from Warsaw’s Epidemic Control Department. She was appalled at the terrible conditions of the Jews that she and a few dozen others wanted to help their situation— the Jewish children were either orphaned, dead, or dying due to the oppression that fell over the city.

Toolboxes, Potato Sacks, Coffins

The first thing that Sendler and her group did was smuggle children out by hiding them in toolboxes, potato sacks, and even coffins. Then, with the help of a Catholic church on the border, they used a rare escape route through numerous underground tunnels to take these poor children away from the horrible situation. She would directly place these Jewish orphans with non-Jewish families or convents. She falsified their documents and faked signatures to give them new names and identities. She kept the detailed records of the children in a jar in case they could be reunited with their parents when things got better. It didn’t.

When the situation worsened, she started convincing parents to hand over their children to give them a better chance at life outside the barbed walls of oppression.

Irena Sendler (1910-2008), Polish social worker and activist, Righteous Among the Nations. (Mariusz KubikCC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Caught by the Gestapo

Despite being the angel of these children, Sendler was not untouchable. In October 1943, she was arrested and imprisoned at Pawiak prison by the Gestapo. She was interrogated about the children’s whereabouts and her co-conspirators for days. Despite being beaten and tortured, she didn’t back down for days, even when her leg and foot were fractured. While there, her friends would leave secret notes through an underground prison network to comfort and motivate her. She would’ve been finished through a bullet had the Zegota not managed to gather enough funds to bribe Nazi officials. Instead, she was struck across her face several times before being left outside the prison walls.

It wasn’t over for her yet.

Sendler hid and lived with her uncle for a time, adopting the new name Klara Dabrowska. After some time, she returned to Warsaw and served as a nurse during its uprising in 1944.

A bronze cast of polish activist Irena Sendler, made by artist Claudia Guderian. (Sculptor claudiaCC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

It was estimated that Sendler managed to smuggle 400 children. She received multiple recognitions for all her actions, including the Polish Righteous Among the Nations, the Commander’s Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta with Star, and the Order of the White Eagle.