Irena Sendler (or Irena Sendlerowa in Poland) was a Polish nurse and social worker. She served in the Polish underground (Polish resistance movement) during WWII and was head of the children’s section of Żegota, a clandestine Polish rescue organisation.
Sendler was influenced by her father, who was one of the first Polish socialists. He was a doctor who mostly treated poor Jewish people. After his death Jewish community leaders tried to pay for Sendler’s education, her mother refused. She went on to study Polish literature at Warsaw University and, influenced by her father, joined the Polish Socialist Party.
In 1939 when Poland was invaded by Germany Sendler was working as a Senior Administrator in the Warsaw Social Welfare Department. They ran the canteens that provided meals, financial aid and other services for orphans, the elderly, the poor and the destitute. Under Sendler they started to provide clothing, medicine and money for the Jews. They were registered under fictitious Christian names and it was claimed they had infections diseases like Typhus (which killed her father).
In 1942 the Jews were herded into a 16 block area known as ‘the ghetto’. Sendler was so disgusted by the treatment of the Jews that she became one of the first to join the Żegota, part of the Polish Underground movement. Sendler procured a pass from the Warsaws Epidemic Control Department so that she could legally enter the ghetto every day and continue to provide clothing, medicine and money but it wasn’t enough.
Sendler began to smuggle children out of the ghetto in an ambulance, she recruited members of the Social Welfare Department and with their help issued fake documents so that she could smuggle over 2,500 children to safety. The church was a great help to Sendler and many children were sent to convents, others went to orphanages and homes with new identities.
Sendler eventually was caught by the Gestapo and was arrested in October 20, 1943. She was tortured and her feet and legs were broken, she was sent to Pawiak Prison where she refused to give up the identities of the children she had saved. Sentenced to death, Sendler was only saved when Zegota members bribed the executioner. She was a fugitive from the Gestapo for the rest of the war.
Sendler had buried the real and false identities of the 2,500 children and after the war she dug them up and used them to reunite any families she could. Apart from Diplomats, she saved more Jews than any other individual during the Holocaust. She was awarded with the Order of the White Eagle, Poland’s highest honour and in 1965, she was recognised by the State of Israel as Righteous among the Nations.