09

Warsaw’s Guardian Angel

Irena Sendler Warsaw, Poland 1910 - 2008

The men and women of the Polish Underground confronted danger head-on throughout the German occupation of their country, only to see liberation from the Red Army turn into further decades of repression. While undermining the occupying forces, gathering intelligence for the Allies, and preventing supplies from reaching the meat-grinder of the Eastern Front, the Polish fighters faced brutal retaliation for their efforts if caught.

Among their branches was the Żegota Council – the Polish Council to Aid Jews – which was responsible for saving tens of thousands of the country’s Jewish population from the horrors of the Holocaust. Their special subdivision that focused on children was headed by an extraordinary woman by the name of Irena Sendler. Yet even before Żegota was founded in 1942, Irena had been hard at work saving Jewish children from the horrors of Nazi occupation, at great personal risk.

As a student at the University of Warsaw, Irena had riled against the practice that separated Jews from other students. Later while working as a social worker at the time of the German invasion, she continued this resistance, as she was able to fake documents to help her Jewish clients who had already been segregated under new rules.

However, it was the establishment of the Warsaw Ghetto in December 1940 that led to Irena intensifying her efforts. A small corner of the Polish capital was walled off, with 400,000 of the county’s Jewish population crammed inside. Many would die in the barbarous conditions from hunger or disease, while it was a convenient staging post for the German forces to transport its inhabitants to concentration and death camps such as Treblinka.

Using another forged document, this time a nurse’s identity card, Irena Sendler was able to get inside the Ghetto, sneaking in medical supplies, food and clothing under the guide of assessing the location’s sanitary conditions. However, it was what Irena took out with her that was more important: children and babies who she managed to safely house with willing helpers such as foster families, orphanages and convents. Her network would also give similar help to those who escaped the Ghetto, using the meagre funds and resources at their disposal to house, feed and give identities to all those in need. Not only was an act of this kind punishable by death for the participants and even their families, but getting permission from the frightened Ghetto prisoners was a challenge – they were, after all, reluctant to let their children leave without knowing what kind of future danger they faced.

Following the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the mass transportation to the camps, Irena and Żegota’s attention turned to those who had escaped and the thousands of others hiding in the city. Ensuring their safety through diligent organisation and raising funds from the Polish Government-in-exile, Irena was unyieldingly energetic in the welfare of those she had helped keep alive.

Her activities eventually caught the attention of the Gestapo, yet even as she was arrested in October 1943, Irena gave her secret list of children to her friend, lest it be discovered. And despite being beaten and tortured she refused to give her any information on her colleagues or those she had saved. She was prepared to take these secrets to her death, but on the way to her execution, her guards were offered a bribe by a fellow activist, and she escaped. Instead of hiding away, Irena resumed her work with Żegota, even becoming a nurse during the bloody but failed Warsaw Uprising the following year.

Honoured by many countries for her efforts in the years after the war, Irena is acknowledged as Righteous Among The Nations by Israel, alongside nearly 7,000 other Poles who risked their lives to save others during the Holocaust. Of the 2,500 children Irena saved from death in the Warsaw Ghetto and beyond, many continued to visit her to give thanks right up until her death in 2008.

We will remember them

Irena Sendler Warsaw, Poland 1910 - 2008
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