Women’s History Month Feature: Irena Sendler


“You see a man drowning, you must try to save him even if you cannot swim.”- Irena Sendler

Irena Sendlerowa was born in 1910, and she is recognized as a “Female Schindler.” Irena was a hero in more than one way, as she was a Polish humanitarian, social worker, nurse, and savior of over 2,5000 Jewish children in Poland from the Warsaw Ghetto.

Irena Sendler’s father was a physician who treated many patients with typhus when other physicians wouldn’t treat them in fear of getting infected, many of them Jewish. After her father contracted the disease, he died in 1917. After his death, many Jewish community leaders helped to pay for Irena’s education. She studied Polish literature at Warsaw University where she protested the “ghetto-bench” system, a form of segregated seating and not only did her grades suffer, but she also was suspended for 3 years.

In 1939, Irena began helping Jews by offering food and shelter after the Nazis invaded Warsaw. In 1940, the Warsaw Ghetto was erected, and Irena was not able to help the isolated Jews. The Ghetto was the size of New York City’s Central Park and held 450,000 Jewish people.

Irena began working at Zegota and the Children’s Division to make over 3,000 false documents to help Jewish families. Her route for smuggling out children was the old courthouse on the edge of the Ghetto which is still standing today. She had 5 methods of escaping:

1) escaping through the courthouse
2) using an ambulance to smuggle children under a stretcher
3) children escaping through the sewer pipes or underground passages
4) trolleys while children hide in a sack, trunk, or suitcase
5) children pretending to be sick or actually sick.

Irena was arrested on October 30th, 1943. She was placed in the Piawaik Prison where she was questioned and tortured. During this time, she fractured her legs and feet. The Nazi who tortured her wanted to find out the names of the other Zegota leaders and their addresses. She told him the story that she and her colleagues had made up. She received the death sentence and was to be shot. At the time she did not know, but Zegota had bribed a Nazi executioner to help her escape. The next day, posters were put up over the city saying she was shot, but she was not. On the day she was to be executed, she was able to escape.

Irena had to live the rest of the war in hiding but after it ended, she was able to continue her work of finding children and living parents. She passed away May 2008 at the age of 98. Her dangerous and heroic work should be an inspiration to all because she showed true empathy and bravery.