The world learned about her because she saved two and a half thousand Jewish children during WWII. However this remarkable woman did much more – she spent her life working socially, always standing by the side of the weak, she was incessantly ready to help.
Born in 1910, she considered that she had helping in her blood – when she was only 10 her father died of typhus as he was the only doctor who had decided to help the sick. She was engaged in scouting in secondary school despite her own health issues. She was taught there – she said – to tell the bad from the good and to take care of other people. She studied law in Warsaw, later on, also Polish philology because she wanted to attend pedagogical faculties.
Her student rights were suspended after she openly supported Jewish students and acted against the ‘bench ghetto’ that made Jewish students sit separately from ‘Polish’ students.
Her first job was at the Social Welfare Department in the Mother and Child Help Section – she was in charge of the Mothers of Illegitimate Children Care Section. Unfortunately, the Section was soon closed down as a few members were strongly left-wing. Irena Sendler was transferred to the Social Welfare Department in the Warsaw Administration at Złota Street.
At the beginning of the war she joined the Polish Socialist Party. Her work in the structure was mainly distributing medications to partisans hiding in the woods and delivering allowances to Warsaw University professors whose financial situation was difficult.
Since 1942, she was a member of the Social Council to Aid Jews (conspiracy nickname Konrad Żegota), an organisation founded by Zofia Kossak-Szczucka and Wanda Krahelska-Filipowicz. She was the head of the Children’s Department. She kept the books very neatly to document that all the money transferred to the Polish Underground State by Jewish organisations in the USA was indeed spent on those in need.
Irena Sendler was not only very courageous when she jeopardised her life to save others, but she also excelled at an organisational level. At least ten Poles had to be involved to save one Jewish child, who needed to be taken out of the ghetto and later provided with shelter until they learned the basic prayers and Polish, and then needed a safe house and had to be supplied with necessities and, if needed, healthcare.
She also took care of the children’s identities and didn’t let them lose them. On a thin piece of paper she wrote their real and artificial names and surnames, the coded addresses of their shelters – in case the archive was found. She kept the notes in jars buried under the ground.
The very year when she joined the Social Council to Aid Jews as sister ‘Jolanta’, she was arrested and sent to Pawiak. She escaped death thanks to the efforts of Żegota, who managed to bribe one of the officers. The Germans thought her dead, and so she lived under a false name. For this reason, she was unable to come to her mother’s funeral.
After the war she was summoned by the National Council of the City of Warsaw to work in the newly established Health and Social Welfare Department, where she became head after just a month’s work. She was a Commissioner of educational supervision in the Ministry of Education since 1952, however she resigned for her two little children, and started cooperating with vocational medical schools. She took care of educating the youth as she considered it an inseparable element of vocational education.
She became the director of the Secondary Medical School Department in the Ministry of Health. Prior to the events of 1968 she was made to retire as she was accused of supporting Israel. She was politically prosecuted. Once, she even fled arrest, which in the Stalinist times meant the death penalty. She owed her escape to one of those she had previously saved – the wife of the chief of the Ministry of Public Security of Poland in Warsaw.
In order to stay in touch with the youth she worked in a school library until 1984. One of those she had saved, professor Michał Głowiński, said: “If I wrote an encyclopaedic entry on Irena Sendler and was to describe her with the shortest and simplest words, I would say »A great Social Worker« as for me these words express the essence of her life and all the challenges she took up throughout the decades”.
Following the war she was active in numerous organisations that helped others. These included the League for Fighting Racism (promptly dissolved by the Party), the Association of Children’s Friends, the Red Cross, the Polish Teachers’ Union (which she abandoned to join ‘Solidarity’). She was an alderwoman for two terms on the National Council of the Capital City of Warsaw – she presided over the Health Commission. Ever since its establishment she was a member of the Open Republic – Association against Anti-Semitism and Xenophobia.
She was given the Order of the White Eagle and Jan Karski Prize. She received honorary citizenship of Israel, and she considered her ‘Righteous among the Nations’ medal her greatest accomplishment. She wasn’t able to plant a tree on the Honour Lane until 1983, when the authorities agreed to issue a passport for her. She died on the 12th of May 2008 in Warsaw in an institution run by the Brothers Hospitallers of St. John of God, in the New Town district, where she had lived for many years. She was surrounded by friends ’till the very end.
Mieszkowska, A. (ed.). 2007. Matka dzieci Holocaustu. Historia Ireny Sendlerowej, Wydawnictwo Literackie MUZA S.A.: Warszawa.