Irena Sendler rescued 2,500 children from the Nazi death camps. Her story, writes Marti Attoun in Ladies’ Home Journal, was rescued by three Kansas teens. Irena Sendler keeps a photo of “her Kansas girls” on the bedside table in her nursing-home room in Warsaw, Poland. She rests easier now that her story is in good hands.
And her story is astounding, as awe-inspiring as that of Oskar Schindler, whose courageous acts of Nazi resistance became a book and an Academy Award-winning film. But unlike Schindler, who received international acclaim, Sendler had been a footnote in history for nearly 60 years. That all changed in September 1999, when three teenagers in a small town in Kansas were looking for a topic for a history project and stumbled upon a short mention of Sendler in an article in a 5-year-old newsmagazine. As a Catholic social worker, the article said, Sendler had organized the rescue of 2,500 Jewish babies and children from the Nazi-controlled Warsaw ghetto in 1942 and 1943.
“We thought it was a typo,” recalls Elizabeth Cambers, now 18 and a college freshman. “We thought it was supposed to say she rescued 250 children, not 2,500.”
In September 1939, when the Nazis invaded Poland, Sendler was a 29-year-old social worker employed by Warsaw’s social-welfare department. An only child, she had been just 7 when her father, a Catholic doctor, contracted typhus and died after treating Jews during a 1917 typhus outbreak . But she never forgot his sacrifice. “I was taught that if a man is drowning, it is irrelevant what is his religion or nationality,” Sendler has said. “One must help him. It is a need of the heart.”
In the fall of 1940, Sendler watched as the Nazis forced 350,000 Jews inside the Warsaw ghetto, a 16-square-block area that was walled off and guarded. With each passing month of the war, the torment of the people locked inside intensified. They were dying of starvation and disease while unknowingly waiting for the Nazis to herd them into freight cars that would ultimately take them to their deaths in the gas chambers.
Sendler joined Zegota, the code name for the Council for Aid to Jews in Occupied Poland, an underground network founded in December 1942 by psychologist Adolf Berman and six other prominent scholars, religious leaders, and social activists. The secret organization, which forged thousands of birth certificates and other documents to give Jews safe Aryan identities, asked Sendler to head up their operation to smuggle Jewish children out of the Warsaw ghetto.
But first she had to get inside. Because the Nazis were on guard against the spread of infections, they allowed the delivery of medicine inside the Ghetto. A Zegota member working inside the Polish disease department forged a permit that allowed Sendler to work undercover as a nurse inside the ghetto. Her code name was Jolanta.
With the help of 10 “messenger friends,” as Sendler called her colleagues, and dozens of volunteers, she organized the effort to sneak the children to orphanages, convents, and private homes in the Warsaw region. Children who were old enough to talk were taught to rattle off Christian prayers and mimic other religious behavior (such as how to make the sign of the cross) so they could live safely without arousing suspicion of their Jewish heritage.
Sendler and Zegota devised several routes for smuggling children out of the ghetto. Kids escaped on foot or in the arms of volunteers through sewer pipes or basements with underground passageways. Many also escaped through the courthouse, which had entrances on both the ghetto side and Aryan side. Other methods were more inventive. For instance, a trolley driver and Zegota member, when crossing from the ghetto to the Aryan side, hid little ones in trunks, suitcases, or sacks under his back-seat, where the Nazi guards could not see. Another supporter, an ambulance driver, kept his dog beside him in the front seat and trained him to bark to camouflage any cries or noises from the babies hidden under stretchers in back. Sendler also arranged for babies and children to be sedated and smuggled out with merchants in potato sacks, under their loads of goods. Sometimes, she even sneaked sedated children out in body bags, telling t he guards that they were dead.
Day after day, for about 16 months, Sendler persuaded parents and grandparents to hand over their babies and children, to give them a chance to live. “There were terrible scenes,” Sendler says. “One mother & I wanted a child to leave the ghetto while the father did not. The grandma wanted, the husband did not. They asked what was the guarantee? What kind of guarantee could I give them?” She couldn’t even guarantee that she could get past the guards. On slips of tissue paper, Sendler recorded the identity of every child she rescued.
Whenever possible, she wrote down the child’s Jewish name as well as the child’s new Christian name and new address. Sendler buried these names in jars under an apple tree in a friend’s garden. After the war, Sendler hoped, the children would be located and their Jewish identities revealed to them.
On Oct. 20, 1943, the Gestapo arrested Sendler. They had long suspected she was running a smuggling operation, and one of her messengers had been caught and tortured until she gave up Sendler’s name and home address. The Gestapo interrogated Sendler, demanding information about the identities of the other rescuers and the children in hiding. But she refused to talk, even when she was beaten until her legs and feet were broken. “I was quiet as a mouse,” Sendler has said. “I would have rather died than disclose anything about our operations.” She was then taken to Pawiak prison, where she was sentenced to be executed.
At the last minute, however, the woman who had rescued so many others was herself rescued. On the day she was to be executed, Zegota paid a hefty bribe to a guard, who allowed Sendler to escape. The guard subsequently posted Sendler’s name on public bulletin boards as one of the executed, essentially rendering her invisible to the Nazis. She then went into hiding in Poland, just like the children she’d saved.
When Poland was liberated a year and three months later, in January 1945, Sendler returned to the friend’s garden and dug up the jars. She turned over the rescued children’s names to Zegota’s Berman, and he and other members of the group tried to locate the children’s foster families.
Sadly, most of the children had no parents or grandparents to be found. Less than 1 percent of the Jews inside the ghetto survived the war, most having perished at the Treblinka death camp in northeast Poland. After the war, Sendler married, raised two children of her own, and continued her career as a social worker in Warsaw. The beatings she had suffered at the hands of the Gestapo left her permanently disabled and she has had trouble walking ever since. But she never talked openly about her rescue work. Poland was under a communist regime, and the postwar climate wasn’t safe.
For almost 60 years, her story was essentially lost to history.
Then, in March 2000, she received a letter from Elizabeth Cambers and two of her classmates at Uniontown High School in Uniontown, Kansas.
Encouraged by their social studies teacher, the girls had selected Sendler as the subject of their National History Day project, and though information about her was scarce, they had been able to write a 10-minute play, titled “Life in a Jar”, that had already won first place at the state level of the national contest. “We explained who we were and what we were doing,” says Sabrina Coons, now 20 and a student at Kansas State University. “We told her that we found her story amazing.”
Sendler’s response, handwritten in Polish, arrived in Kansas three weeks later. “I am very eager to receive and read your play,” Sendler wrote. In a series of letters, Sendler answered the students’ questions, and slowly the details of her remarkable story unfolded; an international friendship was forged.
After an emotional performance of Life in a Jar at Uniontown High, the students were invited to perform the play for church groups, nursing homes, and civic organizations throughout southeast Kansas. Through their correspondence with Sendler, the teens learned that she lived quite meagerly. So at each performance, they set out a donation jar. Their first gift to Sendler was $3, which they told her to use for postage. “We found out later that she gave the $3 away to a children’s home,” says Coons. “That’s just how she is.”
Although the girls didn’t win any awards when they traveled to Maryland in June 2000 to compete in the national contest, their play gained national and international attention, and the students have since given more than 100 performances of the play in eight different states. As a result, Sendler has received numerous awards for her courageous work. After learning she was to be given a $10,000 humanitarian award from the American Center of Polish Culture in Washington, she wrote to her girls “My emotion is being shadowed by the fact that no one from the circle of my faithful coworkers, who constantly risked their lives, could live long enough to enjoy all the honors that now are falling upon me…. I can’t find the words to thank you, my dear girls…. Before the day you have written the play “Life in a Jar” — nobody in my own country and in the whole world cared about my person and my work during the war …” One member of a Kansas City a udience was so profoundly moved by Sendler’s story that he raised money to send the play’s three authors to Poland to meet Sendler in May 2001.
“It wasn’t real until I actually met Irena,” says Megan Stewart. “We all ran up and hugged her. She wanted to just hold our hands and hear about our lives.” Cambers told Sendler, “I love you. You are my hero.”
Sendler, a 4-foot-11-inch woman who now uses a wheelchair, deflected the girls’ praise. “A hero is someone doing extraordinary things,” she told them.. “What I did was not extraordinary. It was a normal thing to do.”