For years during World War II, a group of young Polish women, some of them barely out of their teens, outfoxed the Nazis. At great personal risk they saved the lives of thousands of Jewish children by smuggling them out of the Warsaw ghetto to safety. Yet for years their work went unheralded; indeed very few people even knew what they had done. Only decades later did they finally receive the credit their heroism merits.
This remarkable true story begins with the Nazi Germany invasion of Poland in 1939. Soon afterwards the Germans set up a ghetto in the Polish capital Warsaw. More than 440,000 Jews were forced inside its walls, where they had to face abject conditions. That number bears repeating: Over 440,000 men, women and children—almost a third of Warsaw’s population—were forced into a tiny, heavily guarded section of the city and barricaded behind 7-foot-high walls.
Although many Catholic Poles were indifferent or indeed openly hostile to Poland’s 3.5 million Jews—who made up 10 percent of its total population—there were some Poles who felt compelled to help their Jewish neighbors. Among them was Irena Sendler, who was a 29-year-old social worker when the Nazis invaded.
Sendler appealed to her friends and colleagues to help the Jews imprisoned behind the ghetto’s walls without food, medicine or contact with the outside world. They had to do something, Sendler believed, even if the Nazis strictly forbade interactions between Warsaw’s Jews and “Aryans.” So she used her position as a social worker in the city’s Welfare Department to obtain a municipal permit to enter the ghetto. Her pretext was to inspect sanitary conditions there. She was preying on the Nazis’ fear that the typhus that plagued the ghetto would spread beyond its walls. But in fact Sendler used the pass as a ruse to enter the ghetto, where she hoped to provide help. Once there she made contacts with members of Jewish welfare organizations, and Sendler and her friends began to smuggle aid into the ghetto.
“The first time I went into the ghetto it made a hellish impression on me,” Sendler recalled. “I’d go out on my rounds in the morning and see a starving child lying there. I’d come back a few hours later and he would already be dead, covered with a newspaper.” She soon realized that she could not possibly bring in enough aid to provide much help to Warsaw’s Jews. The situation was just too dire. Then the Nazis began deporting Jews from the ghetto to death camps. In fall of 1942, the Germans sent 280,000 Jews from Warsaw to Treblinka. “I knew they were going to the freight yard and to their death,” she said. “Very quickly we realized that the only way to save the children was to get them out.”
During Nazi occupation there was a Polish underground organization to save Jews, known as the Council for the Aid of Jews (or Zegota in Polish), operating clandestinely in Warsaw and Sendler became the head of its children’s division. She had about 30 volunteers in her group, mostly young women, and their mission was simply to save as many children and teenagers as possible from the ghetto. Zegota used its network to work both within and without the ghetto: it would rescue Jews from the ghetto and attempt to assist Jews trying to survive in hiding beyond the ghetto walls. The organization tried to find hiding places for Jews who did manage to escape and paid for their upkeep and medical care.
Taking the underground name Jolanta, Sendler leveraged the contacts she had as a social worker. She believed she could send Jewish children to the orphanages and children’s homes she knew of. And it was a great plan. But it was incredibly hard to get children out of the ghetto. To do so, Sendler and her comrades hid Jewish infants on trams and garbage wagons. They led older children out through secret passageways and the city’s sewers in order to free them. “Some children were placed in coffins, their mouths taped, or they were sedated so they wouldn’t cry,” Stanlee Stahlof the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous told the New York Times. “Other children were smuggled out in potato sacks.” Sometimes they would use an ambulance wagon with a driver and a dog to take Jewish children through the ghetto gates. “Children were under the floorboard,” Stahl explained. “The barking dog would drown out a child’s cries.”
But it wasn’t just a question of getting children out of the ghetto. Sendler had to determine where they could be kept safe outside. She figured outside of the heavily patrolled city was best. But in order to take the children from safe houses in Warsaw to orphanages and convents in the surrounding countryside, they’d need paperwork. The Germans—notorious bureaucrats—would always ask for documents. So Zegota’s underground activists used forged Catholic birth certificates and fake identity papers, which they had signed by priests and high-ranking social services officials. It was a well-orchestrated conspiracy, but fraught with danger.
Any non-Jew caught with a Jew would be killed, as would their family. Obviously the Jew would be killed too. And the Nazis were always looking for Jews beyond the ghetto, while there was no shortage of Poles happy to deliver a Jew to them. Any child stopped in the street by the Gestapo who was unable to recite a Catholic prayer was liable to be shot on the spot. So Sendler taught Jewish children the prayers any non-Jewish Polish kid would know; she would even wake them up in the middle of the night to test them. She knew that knowing them could be a matter of life and death.
“You are not Rachel but Roma. You are not Isaac but Jacek,” Sendler would tell those she tried to save. “Repeat it ten times, a hundred, even a thousand times.” But while Sendler and her colleagues gave the Jewish children Polish pseudonyms, they kept meticulous records of the children’s Jewish names so they could be reunited with their families after the war. That was the plan, at least. But persuading a family to entrust their child with her was understandably tricky, even if the family knew that life in the ghetto was so dire. “Their first question was: ‘What guarantee is there that the child will live?’” Sendler recalled. “I said, ‘None. I don’t even know if I will get out of the ghetto alive today.’”
Sendler’s luck ran out in October 1943, when the Gestapo arrested her. They knew she was part of an underground network, tortured her and sentenced her to death. But Sendler managed to conceal incriminating evidence including the addresses of the children she had saved. This no doubt save the Jewish children’s lives once again. The Gestapo sent Sendler to Warsaw’s notorious Pawiak prison for execution, but her comrades bribed prison officials and she was released before it could take place.
Even after her narrow escape Sendler continued to try to save Jewish children from murder, working as an underground activist until the end of the war. Once the Nazis were defeated, she and her colleagues brought together all their records of the children they had saved, including their names and locations. They gave the records to Zegota’s Adolf Berman, the head of the Central Committee of Polish Jews, so that the children might be reunited with their families. However despite Zegota’s good intentions, this would be impossible: Almost every parent of the children they saved had been killed in a concentration camp or the ghetto.
Poland became part of the Soviet Union after World War II and instead of celebrating Sendler and her comrades as heroines, the Communist authorities silenced them. Their actions did not fit the collective narrative; only years later could their story be told in Poland. Israel was more appreciative and Yad Vashem recognized Sendler as one of the first “righteous among the nations” in 1965. But because Poland’s Communist leaders did not allow her to travel to nefariously “Zionist” Israel, she could only receive the award in 1983. It was the first of many accolades she received. In 2003 Pope Jean-Paul II sent Sendler a personal letter in praise of her wartime efforts and she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007. Irena Sendler died a year later at the age of 98.
“She was the inspiration and the prime mover for the whole network that saved those 2,500 Jewish children,” Debórah Dwork, a professor of Holocaust history at Clark University told the New York Times after her death. Sendler and her comrades managed to save their lives with the help of the Polish Resistance and about 200 convents and orphanages in Warsaw and beyond. The work was not easy and it was very dangerous, but it was vital. Sendler personally smuggled out of the ghetto about 400 children. Among the 400 was Elzbieta Ficowska, who was just a baby in 1942. “Mrs. Sendler saved not only us,” Ficowska said, “but also our children and grandchildren and the generations to come.”