Born in Warsaw, Poland in 1910, Irena Sendler was an idealist that wanted to change the world.
After German troops marked into the city of Warsaw, they began to relocate the Jewish population to the ghetto, a year later closing it and trapping 400,000 people in squalor within its walls.
More than a quarter of the population died from starvation or disease even before the deportation to concentration camps began.
It's Time To Act
Irena was a nurse that came to be employed as a social worker in the Warsaw Social Welfare Department. Even as a devout Catholic, she refused to let prejudice prevent her from helping people who were in need.
That's when Irena began to use her pass to smuggle in medicine and food for the desperate people.
After she joined one of the underground movements, she began to smuggle out children from the ghetto. She ended up leading a network of 10 people, 9 of which women, and 1 of which died during her resistance activities.
They hid children in coffins and body bags, led them through cellars and sewers, sedated babies and carried them out of the ghetto in boxes.
Once they were free, Irena placed infants with childless couples, and older children with temporary foster homes, where they learned Catholic rites and disappeared into church orphanages and schools. More than 2,500 children were saved this way.
Michal Glowinski, a childhood friend of Irena, was also saved by her when she hid him in an isolated convent. "She was an organizational genius. Though the youngest, she imposed her will on her colleagues, making quick decisions which no one questioned," he says.
It's a horrible situation to be faced with, so what do you do?
Irena was determined to reunite the rescued children with their birth parents after the war was over. She made 2 coded lists, recording the children's fake and real identities, and buried these in glass jars in a friend's garden.
"My hatred of the German occupiers was stronger than my fear. In addition, my father had taught me that if you see a man drowning, you must try to save him even if you cannot swim. At that time, it was Poland that was drowning," Irena said in an interview.
Capture and Imprisonment
In October 1943, Irena was betrayed by a colleague who was under questioning and she was arrested by the Gestapo and taken to Pawiak prison.
She was tortured for a period of 3 months, but revealed nothing.
The morning of her scheduled execution, she managed to escape from the prison, with the help of a guard who was bribed by the resistance. For the remainder of the war, she lived like her rescued children-in hiding under an assumed name.
While she may have saved many lives in her heroic acts, it didn't bring happiness into her own life.
"The family legend has it that my mum went to a fortune teller who told her she would be married three times but only have two husbands, and that’s exactly what happened," her daughter Janka said.
Irena divorced Sendler and in 1947 married Stefan, where she had 3 children, Janka, Andrzej (who died in infancy) and Adam (who died of heart failure as an adult).
12 years later she divorced Stefan and remarried Sendler, a rematch that also failed.
"A big problem with my dad was that he didn’t want her to work, and my mum was working 36 hours a day," Janka joked.
Despite her efforts, there were no clear-cut happy endings to Irena's story, or of the rescue children. The glass jar with coded information were unable to reunite many of the children with their parents, as a result of the gas chambers during the war.
As most of their birth parents feared, many of the children are no longer Jewish and struggled with their identity.
"I go to the synagogue from time to time as a kind of delegate of my lost family, but it’s alien to me," says Elzbieta Ficowska. "When I enter a Catholic church, everything is mine. Sometimes I look in the mirror for traces of my real parents. I sent letters all around the world to try to find out about them."
In 1964, Irena received the Israeli honorary title of Polish Righteous Among The Nations, and in 1997, she was believed to have been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, but former Vice President Al Gore won the award.
She never held a grudge about not winning the prize, because some people never forgot her contribution.
"Now both the children and grandchildren of those I rescued come and see me," Irena said in the interview.
In 2009, a TV movie aired entitled The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler
After working hard to help others throughout her life, Irena died at the age of 98.
"To me, my mother’s story shows that you are not aware what you are capable of – either for good or for bad – until a critical moment comes," says Janka.