Perhaps you had the opportunity to see Tina Kandelaki’s television feature on war hero Irena Sendler. For those who missed it, Irena was a Polish/German woman who at the start of the war knew the German’s plans for exterminating Jews in Poland and so she sought and received work in Warsaw, the city of her birth. The Germans invaded Poland in 1939 and she began rescuing Jews by creating false documents to help Jewish families escape the Ghetto.
Her job as a director of the Social Welfare Department meant that she had a special permit to enter the Ghetto to check for signs of typhus. She created a false bottom in her ambulance toolbox to carry small children out of the ghetto but had to rely on a burlap sack for older children. She went in and out of the ghetto each day accompanied by a dog trained to bark when Nazi soldiers approached. Co-workers began to assist with the effort and children were smuggled out by various methods from hiding under bricks in wheelbarrows to hollow compartments in trucks.
Eventually her activities were uncovered but before her arrest she and colleagues had smuggled out around 2500 children. The identities of the rescued children were kept buried in jars so that after the war it would be possible to reunite them with their relatives. Many of the children were sheltered in Catholic convents until they could be placed in homes with new identities.
When caught she was tortured, and even after both her arms and legs were broken, she refused to tell the Nazi’s where the children had been placed and refused to reveal their identities. She was sentenced to be executed but narrowly escaped being shot with assistance from the underground. After the war she assisted in the effort to reunite children with parents but most of the parents had perished in the Nazi gas chambers.
In 2003 she was honoured with the Polish Order of the White Eagle, Poland’s highest award. Israel’s Holocaust museum awarded her the title of “Righteous Among the Nations.”
She was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007.
Late in life, in a letter to the Polish Parliament, Irene wrote that “Every child saved with my help is the justification of my existence on this Earth, and not a title to glory. I feel guilty that I didn’t do more …”
She died on 12 May 2008.
A movie about her life, The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler was filmed in 2009 in Riga, Latvia.