Irena Sendler: The Unknown Hero Of The Warsaw Ghetto Who Saved 2,500 Children

Irena Sandler’s name is not as well-known as Oskar Schindler, but it should be. Schindler saved 1,200 Jews from the Holocaust in Czechoslovakia.  Sendler, his counterpart in Poland, saved 2,500 by posing them as Gentiles.

Each time she smuggled children out of the Warsaw Ghetto it was a contest with death. Had she been discovered by the Germans a summary execution would follow.

Her story was recently published in the book Irena’s Children by Tilar J. Mazzeo.

She helped start an underground network moving children under coats, in toolboxes, and coffins, to the homes of non-Jewish families.  Each child’s name was written on a scroll that was buried beneath an apple tree.  She hoped that at the Second World War’s end she would be able to reunite the children with their families.

When the Germans invaded Poland in 1939, she was employed at the Citizen’s Social Aid Committee, assisting single mothers. To show their resistance, she and her co-workers falsified welfare files using fake names to procure clothing, food, and cash to Jewish families whose bank accounts were inaccessible. To prevent the Germans from trying to visit the families, she embellished details by noting that cholera and typhus were present.

By 1941, when the Germans started moving Warsaw’s Jewish residents to an area of the city’s poorest districts that became known as the Warsaw Ghetto, Sendler, because of her position, had access to the area and secretly moved children resettling them with Gentiles. Forged birth certificates transformed them into Aryans. The ghetto, housing 400,000 Jews, was sealed off with bricks and barbed wire and patrolled by guards.

When a Christian youngster died in an orphanage, the name never appeared in any reports so the identity and the registry number could be used to furnish a new identification for to Jewish child.

Elzbieta Ficowski, six-years-old at the time, was hidden in a carpenter’s toolbox when smuggled out of the ghetto. She was one of a number of children Sendler thought it best to have baptized. The child’s grandfather, when told of this broke down in tears. A couple of days later, a small package containing a crucifix and a lace christening gown was delivered.  No note was attached.

The message was plain, wrote Mazzeo.  It was a family’s last farewell to a much-loved child. Sendler’s luck changed in October 1943 when the Germans raided her apartment. She was arrested, sent to prison and sentenced to be executed.  The underground Polish Council to Aid Jews bribed an officer to release her. For the remainder of the war, she was in hiding.

At the end of the war, Sendler attempted to find the list with the buried names, but Warsaw was destroyed to such an extent it was hard to tell what had been a back yard. She had to rely on memory for children’s names so she could find accommodation with families living overseas, New York Post reported.

Although Sendler was recognized by the Righteous Among the Nations memorial organization in 1965, such was not the reaction of the government of communist Poland. The remainder of her days were spent in her native country, caring for her three children.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE