While continuing her normal everyday work for the Department of Social Welfare in Warsaw, Sendler also worked under the cover-name “Jolanta” and was responsible for helping to smuggle a great many Jewish children out of the beleaguered Warsaw Ghetto. The Ghetto was an area about the size of New York’s Central Park that the Nazis established in 1943 and forced some 450,000 Jewish people to live cordoned off in this area.
By getting hundreds of Jewish children out of the Ghetto, then helping provide them with false identity documents and finding shelter for them with Polish families, orphanages, and other facilities such as Catholic convents, Sendler unquestionably saved the lives of those children and protected them from the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust.
Sendler was not alone in this activity, of course. She was one of dozens of Christian and humanitarian workers who participated in the effort to save the Jewish children, but what places Sendler apart from this group is the fact that she functioned as the “point woman” in the operation – single handedly getting the children out of the doomed ghetto.
The courage of this woman is evident in the incredible ways in which she performed the extractions. In addition to taking the children out of the guarded ghetto by means of sewers and other hidden routes, Sendler utilized methods such as hiding a child under a blanket in an ambulance or hiding a child in a suitcase, a sack, or other container of some kind. She made a hidden compartment in a wheeled tool box that she took in and out of the ghetto and very small children and babies were smuggled out in that. The rescue of very small children was especially dangerous as they often began to cry. Incredibly, Sendler trained a pet dog that accompanied her to bark in order to cover the sound whenever a hidden child began to cry.
Using covert methods like these, Sendler was able to rescue some 2500 children from almost certain death. But the Nazis became suspicious of her activities and in 1943 she was arrested and interrogated by the Gestapo. During the questioning she was tortured and beaten so badly that both her legs and feet were fractured. Sendler’s courage came into play once again, however, and she did not reveal the names of her contacts and fellow underground workers.
Nevertheless, someone had informed on her and Sendler was sentenced to death. But in yet another amazing aspect of this story, the Polish resistance movement managed to bribe the individual assigned to execute her and she was spirited away on the day of her scheduled execution. On the following day the German occupation forces publicly proclaimed her execution and Irena Sendler, in hiding, had the satisfaction of reading the posters that were put up with the news that she had been shot.
Almost all the parents of the children that Sendler saved died at the Treblinka concentration camp, but due to her efforts those people knew, at least, that their children were safe. Not surprisingly, after the War, in 1946, Sendler was awarded the Gold Cross of Merit for her work in saving so many Jewish children and sometime later she was also awarded the Order of the White Eagle, Poland's highest civilian honor. In 1965, Sendler was also recognized by the State of Israel as one of the “Righteous Among the Nations.”
But the incredible good that Irena Sendler accomplished must always be seen in the light of the amazing courage that this woman displayed throughout hundreds of missions in which children were saved and in undergoing torture rather than betraying her fellow workers. Irena Sendler is a name that we should not only recognize among those who have courageously helped others, but also one we should never forget.