Content warning: this series includes mention of child death, execution, torture, and of course the Holocaust
Today I’d like to start a new historical profile series on people who resisted Naziism in a variety of ways. Some smuggled eweapons and some smuggled children. Many were killed for their heroic efforts. Today we begin with a woman who saved thousands of lives and survived, a woman who said “I was brought up to believe that a person must be rescued when drowning, regardless of religion and nationality.”
Irena Sendler (also recorded as Irena Sendlerowa, born Irena Krzyżanowska) was a Polish Catholic social worker. She cared about children. The capital of Poland, Warsaw was occupied by Nazi forces from the Siege of Warsaw in 1939 until the end of the war in 1945. During that time, Nazis first segregated Jews into high walled ghettos, then established nine concentration camps in Poland; the majority of these were extermination centers, death camps.
Social workers were not allowed to visit the ghettos but nurses were, so Sendler forged the necessary paperwork. This was a tremendous risk and not only for herself. Nazi laws in Poland enacted in 1941 state that not only could resistors be executed, their entire families would be sentenced to death as well. The majority of non Jewish Poles kept their heads down and tried to not gather notice.
Typhoid and other diseases of close quarters and limited hygiene were rampant in the ghettos where half a million Jews were coralled, and Sendler posed as a nurse prepared to battle those illnesses, bringing for and medicine in large containers. Once she was inside the ghetto walls, she found ways to smuggle out and rescue Jewish children. She carried them out in carpet bags, suitcases, and coffins. Babies were sedated so they wouldn’t alert Nazis to their cries.
Before joining any organized resistance groups, it’s estimated that she saved 500 Polish Jewish children and adults, including her future husband. Exact details of this era are fuzzy but she met up with others opposed to the Nazis as she saved people. Irena eventually worked with a network of other resistors. She joined the Polish underground, Zegota, in 1942 and, with the help of the many women friends she recruited, carried out coordinated rescue efforts.
To support this blog, become a patron.