Most people think nothing of scribbling notes on paper or generating lists every day.
But for Irena Sendlerowa (aka Irena Sendler), this was dangerous. If caught, the hopes and legacies of thousands of Jewish families would be destroyed.
In 1943, Irena went to unusual lengths to conceal her scribbled notes stuffed into jars and buried under the tree across from her home in Poland. Smuggling Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto was a complicated business. And her lists, they “noted the names of every child on cigarette papers, twice for security, [before she] sealed them in two glass bottles, [and] buried them in a colleague’s garden.” (Source)
Irena made it her mission to keep these records safe, dreaming the rescued children and their parents would eventually reunite after the war. The mission called for unimaginable bravery and incomprehensible duress. Working under an alias name for an underground activist group known as Zegota, Irena went by the clandestine name Jolanta. All she had to do was to hide from the German Gestapo who executed anyone harbouring or aiding a Jew.
All of this, Zegota and Irena’s mission, started in January of 1943. There were dozens of people working to improve the social conditions for Jews trapped in the ghetto. They created integrate systems for smuggling children to safety from German-occupied Poland. Zegota was established a year earlier by a resistance fighter and writer named Zofia Kossak-Szczucka who worked alongside Irena before she was caught and sent to the Auschwitz death camp.
Irena’s desire to help others came from her personal connection to them. Born in 1910, Irena grew up in the small town of Otwock where her father Dr. Stanisław Krzyżanowski worked as a physician. He and his wife, Janina were humanitarians who treated the very poor and the Jews. When Irena’s father died from typhus fever in 1917, it was the Jewish community that offered financial assistance to Irena and her mother.
These experiences affect Irena greatly and instilled a sense of democracy that included everyone.
But Poland was not ready for Irena and her “leftist leanings”. As Irena pursued higher education, studying law and nursing but finishing neither programs at the University of Warsaw, she called out the prejudices she witnessed. In fact, she felt so strongly about the discriminatory treatment of the poor and the Jewish people that she defaced the “non-Jewish” label that appeared on her student identification card.
When Irena left school, she joined the Polish Socialist Party and looked to many activist groups including the Communist Party. In 1935, when Irena accepted a job with the Department of Social Welfare and Public Health for the City of Warsaw, she saw it as a chance to change the system.
This was Irena’s hope well before she witnessed Jews being rounded up and shot in the streets. The war had come to Poland in 1942 and Jews were leaving one way or the other – by firing squad or transported on mass to death camps. Some of Irena’s friends were part of these groups walled off from the rest of society in the Warsaw Ghetto.
Over the course of her work hiding and saving Jewish children, many of whom were already orphaned, Irena employed some pretty creative strategies to evade the Gestapo. Suitcases and delivery crates versus tunnels through sewers or back doors through churches, it didn’t matter. Irena saved 2,500 kids and made sure all of them that spoke could recite Christian prayers in case they were stopped.
Eventually, Irena was caught and severely beaten in October of 1943. The horrific torture is captured in the movie, The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler, starring Anna Paquin as Irena. Her legs and feet were broken but in an unlikely twist of fate, Irena escaped death when one of her Zegota patriots bribed her captors so she could flee.
Despite these mental and physical scars, Irena went back to working as a nurse in Warsaw, where she continued to serve until the Spring of 1944.
When the war ended, Irena joined the Communist Party and the Warsaw Council to usher in reforms and to “reunite” the Jewish children in their faith.
What’s interesting in the 50s and 60s is that Irena remained largely unknown despite receiving two of Poland’s highest awards – the Gold Cross of Merit in 1956, and the Knight’s Cross in 1963. She also received a special Righteous Among Nations Award from Israel. Throughout this period, however, Irena claimed she was being watched by her government and persecuted by the authorities for her socialist beliefs so maybe that had something to do with her anonymity.
Despite these difficulties, Irena married and had three children. She lived to the ripe old age of 97 and received additional humanitarian awards, posthumously. After a life of service, people were starting to learn about Irena, especially after she received two nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 and 2008.
There were additional plaques with dedications and walkways and schools in Poland named after Irena, not to mention several books, a play and a movie to keep her memory alive. Polish historian Anna Mieszkowska wrote a captivating biography, Irena Sendler: Mother of the Children of the Holocaust and the internationally recognized book, Sendler in Hiding, written by Anna Bikont, highlighted the lasting implications of Irena’s ability to build peace in the world.
Today, as we see the continued political division that fractured Irena’s world, we have to ask ourselves the same questions she asked. Instead of pointing fingers and judging others with deaf ears, wouldn’t it be nice if we could move past differences and build greater equality for all? Can you imagine what the world would look like with courageous examples of fearless leadership?
I’m not sure the world is ready to change its old habits and embrace more collective and collaborative perspectives but women like Irena exemplify the best of what it means to be human with their mental fortitude and selfless actions.
What impressed me almost as much as the work that Irena did was how the world outside of Poland and Israel finally came to know her. Had it not been for a few school girls in Kansas that decided to research an unknown hero for a history class project, there might be only a few sparse references to her on the internet. There’s also a good chance you would not be reading this article! I’ll share more about this on Friday when WomanScape features Megan Felt’s TedX Talk.
WomanScape continues to share amazing stories about women who have changed the course of history like Irena.
We see how ordinary people can live extraordinary lives of meaning and purpose. For Elżbieta Ficowska, who was saved by Irena when she was smuggled out of the ghetto in a toolbox at just five months of age, she says, “In the face of today’s indifference, the example of Irena Sendlerowa is very important.”
Understanding what it takes to be a leader might be as simple as learning to be fearless in the face of challenges and deciding to overcome them despite the cost. Join us Friday as we explore this in greater depth in two follow up videos. The first is Megan Felt’s, The Irena Sendler Project and the second is an interview with former Icelandic presidential candidate Halla Tómasdóttir who talks about modern leadership.