Lady Arrested for Hiding 2,500 Kids in Coffins During WWII, Years Later True Story Is Out
Updated: Aug 13, 2019
When the Jews were persecuted by the Nazis during WWII, Polish social worker Irena Sendler knew she had to help, even if that meant endangering her own life. During that period, she rescued over 2,500 Jewish babies and children before she was arrested and her secret was exposed.
Born in Poland on Feb. 15, 1910, Irena Sendler, also known as Irena Krzyżanowska, grew up being instilled with the value of helping people “regardless of religion and nationality” by her father, Dr. Stanisław Krzyżanowski, a physician who ran a hospital at the suburb of Otwock.
“Remember, when someone is drowning, extend a helping hand,” Sendler recalled her father’s words.
So, even though she was a Roman Catholic, she committed herself to help Jewish families when the Jews were in danger after the Nazis created the Warsaw Ghetto.
Sendler joined Zegota, an underground organization established by the Polish government in exile during WWII with the aim to rescue Polish Jews, even though she knew this would put her own life at risk. In 1942 and 1943, Sendler organized a small group of social workers to help Jewish children to escape.
Working as a Roman Catholic social worker with the Warsaw Social Welfare Department at the time, Sendler was allowed to enter the Jewish ghetto the Nazis set up in November 1940 to segregate Jews in a designated area around the size of New York’s Central Park.
She visited many Jewish families in order to help their kids. “We witnessed terrible scenes. Father agreed, but mother didn’t,” she recounted, The Telegraph reported. “I’d go back there the next day and often found that everyone had been taken to the Umschlagsplatz railway siding for transport to the death camps.”
To rescue the Jewish children, Sendler would have them pretend they were ill and then bring them to hospitals. As the surveillance outside the ghetto increased, she would hide them in ambulances, wheeling them out of the ghetto in coffins, suitcases, sacks, and trunks. Sometimes, she would help the children escape through the courthouse, the sewer pipes, or other secret underground passageways, which provided a route to the outside world.
Sendler saved more than 2,500 children, who were given forged documents stating their new Christian identities and a home in substitute Polish families, convents, orphanages, or hospitals. Hoping to reunite these children with their families one day after the war, she noted down their names on thin tissue papers before her secret activities got out.
On the night of Oct. 20, 1943, Sendler was arrested and sent to the notorious Piawiak prison, where she was tortured and interrogated. She had both of her arms broken. Nevertheless, she refused to give in and was sentenced to death.
Fortunately, her allies bribed a soldier in the prison, and she was rescued while on the way to be executed. From then on, she lived under a false identity.
After the war, she dug up the jars containing the lists of children, which was buried in a garden. She gave the lists to a rescue organization to help reunite the families. But sadly, most of the children’s families were killed at the Treblinka death camp.
Speaking to Sydsvenskan, she said: “My hatred of the German occupiers was stronger than my fear. In addition, my father had taught me that if you see a man drowning, you must try to save him even if you cannot swim. At that time, it was Poland that was drowning.”
“The reason why I rescued children was because of the way I grew up. I was brought up to believe that a person must be rescued when drowning, regardless of religion and nationality,” she added.
Those who were rescued by Sendler did not forget her. “Now both the children and grandchildren of those I rescued come and see me,” she said.
One of the rescued children was Elzbieta Ficowska, who was 5 months old when Sendler smuggled her out of the ghetto in a toolbox on a lorry. “In the face of today’s indifference, the example of Irena Sendlerowa is very important. Irena Sendlerowa is like a third mother to me and many rescued children,” Ficowska said, according to The Guardian.
Because of the Polish Communist regime’s suppression of history and its endorsing of anti-Semitic sentiment, few Poles knew about Zegota’s work. Hence, Sendler’s tale of heroism had been relatively unknown compared to the story of German industrialist Oskar Schindler, who saved more than 1,000 Jews by employing them at his Krakow factory.
Sendler’s story was only made known to the world after four American students in Kansas—Megan Stewart, Liz Cambers, Sabrina Coons, and Jessica Shelton—wrote a play about it titled Life in a Jar.
The schoolgirls learned about Sendler’s bravery on the internet while researching for a National History Day project in September of 1999. They subsequently got in touch with Sendler, who was living in Warsaw.
“My emotion is being shadowed by the fact that no one from the circle of my faithful coworkers, who constantly risked their lives, could live long enough to enjoy all the honors that now are falling upon me….,” Sendler said, as per Life in a Jar website.
In 2003, Sendler received the Jan Karski award for Valor and Courage. In 2007, she was honored as a national hero by the Polish parliament and nominated for the Nobel prize for saving 2,500 Jewish children from the Warsaw ghetto.
President Lech Kaczynski lauded her as a “great hero who can be justly named for the Nobel peace prize,” adding “she deserves great respect from our whole nation.”
Sendler, however, didn’t think of herself as a hero. “The term ‘hero’ irritates me greatly. The opposite is true. I continue to have pangs of conscience that I did so little,” she said.
On May 12, 2008, Sendler passed away in Warsaw at the age of 98.
Elie Wiesel, a survivor of Auschwitz, author, and Nobel peace laureate, once wrote:
“In those times there was darkness everywhere. In heaven and on earth, all the gates of compassion seemed to have been closed. The killer killed and the Jews died and the outside world adopted an attitude either of complicity or of indifference. Only a few had the courage to care. These few men and women were vulnerable, afraid, helpless – what made them different from their fellow citizens?… Why were there so few?…”
“Let us remember: What hurts the victim most is not the cruelty of the oppressor but the silence of the bystander…. Let us not forget, after all, there is always a moment when a moral choice is made…. And so we must know these good people who helped Jews during the Holocaust. We must learn from them, and in gratitude and hope, we must remember them.”
Irena Sendler’s feats of incredible valor and courage will be remembered for generations.