Thousands of people are alive today due to the efforts of a 30-year-old Polish social worker named Irena Sendler. Here’s the story of this remarkable woman.

• In 1939, when the Nazis invaded Warsaw, Poland, Irena Sendler was a social worker, working in the city’s canteens that offered food, shelter, medicine, and clothing to the city’s persecuted Jews, who were registered at the facility under fictitious Christian names.    In October, 1940, more than 400,000 Jews were forced into a locked area about the size of New York’s Central Park. As she observed thousands dying every month from disease and starvation, the 30-year-old Sendler joined Zegota, an underground organization formed to help Jews.

• Sendler’s burden for the Jewish people came from her childhood, when she had lost her father to typhus when she was 7. He had contracted the disease from those he treated that his fellow physicians refused to help out of fear of the disease. After his death, because of his sacrifice for the Jewish community, its leaders offered financial help for Irena’s education.

•    As a social worker of the Contagious Disease Department, Sendler had papers that allowed her to enter the Ghetto. Her mission became the saving of Jewish orphan children by placing them in the safety of convents or locating non-Jewish families to adopt them. She had several methods to smuggle the children out, including hiding them under a stretcher that was being loaded onto an ambulance. Some were carried out in caskets, potato sacks, body bags, trunks, or suitcases, while others escaped through sewer pipes or underground tunnels. A Catholic church straddled the boundary of the Ghetto, one with two entrances – a door into the Ghetto and a door into the Aryan side. Irena and Zegota members also prepared false documents that enabled the orphans to exit the church freely.

• As the conditions in the Ghetto became even more dreadful, Sendler expanded her rescue efforts beyond orphans and asked Jewish parents to allow her to get their children to safety. With a plan to reunite rescued children with their families after the war, using a special code, she carefully recorded all the children’s original names, their new identities, and their location. All the information was placed in glass jars which were buried under an apple tree in her neighbor’s backyard, ironically, across the street from German barracks. The jars contained names of more than 2,500 children saved by her and her colleagues.   

• Unfortunately, the Nazis became aware of Sendler’s activities. In October, 1943, she was arrested and sent to Pawiak Prison, where she was tortured as the Gestapo broke her feet and legs in an attempt to get her to betray her colleagues and reveal the locations of the children. Refusing to give up any information, she was sentenced to death by a firing squad. Posters announcing her upcoming execution were posted throughout the city. But the Zegota organization came to her aid by bribing the German executioner, a person who helped her Sendler escape at the last minute.

•    Pursued by the Gestapo, she was forced to go into hiding until the end of the war, continuing her work as she could. At the end of the war, as the only one who knew the location of the children’s identities, Sendler dug up the jars and attempted to bring the families together. Tragically, nearly all of the parents had perished at the Polish death camp Treblinka.

•    In 1965, Sendler was honored by Israel’s Yad Vashem as “Righteous among the Nations.”