February 10, 1910 - May 12, 2008
Rescued 2,500 children from the Warsaw Ghetto
As a social worker, Irena Sendler was allowed by the Nazis to visit the Warsaw Ghetto and check signs of typhus. What the Nazis didn’t know was that in addition to being a social worker, Irena was the secret head of the children’s section of Zegota (Council to Aid Jews). Between 1942 and 1943, she smuggled 2,500 Jewish children out of the ghetto and into hiding. For comparison, Oskar Schindler saved roughly 800 Jewish workers.
In 1943, Irena was arrested by the Gestapo. She was tortured, but she didn’t give up the names of her Zegota contacts or the hidden children. In Poland, the penalty for helping a Jew was death, a harsher sentence than elsewhere in Nazi controlled Europe. Irena was sentenced to death by firing squad, but Zegota managed to bribe a guard who left her in the woods. She spent the remainder of the war in hiding.
Irena hid lists of the children’s real names and their hiding places in jars she buried, hoping that they could soon be reunited with their families. Sadly, the majority of the parents perished in the Holocaust and never saw their children again.
Irena Sendler was recognized by Yad Vashem as one of the Righteous Among the Nations in 1965. However, her story was little known until a group of high school students created a play called Life in a Jar based on her bravery during the war. A year before her death in 2008, Irena was nominated for the 2007 Noble Peace Prize.
Although she did not win, at least her bravery was recognized during her lifetime.