Forgotten Polish Women of the Second World War

Caitlin Paterson

During the Second World War, Poland found itself in an impossible situation

During the Second World War, Poland found itself in an impossible situation. On September 1st, 1939, Nazi forces invaded from the West, and sixteen days later, Soviet forces attacked from the East. With the promise of help from Allied forces never coming to fruition, Poland fell. The Nazi’s soon began their mass persecution of the Jewish community, constructing ghettos and concentration camps throughout their newly occupied land. The largest ghetto was in Warsaw, where the entire jewish population in that region was forced to relocate. At its peak, the ghetto housed around 460,000 people of Jewish descent, 85,000 of which were children. One woman, whose partner found himself in this ghetto, could not stand idly by. Irena Sendler was a Polish social worker and nurse, who with the help of Zegota (the underground Polish Council to Aid Jews), rescued 2,500 Jewish children throughout the war. Being a nurse, Sendler found herself in the unique position of being able to obtain a permit, gaining access to the ghetto. Using the codename Jolanta, and under the pretense of being a social worker from the Contagious Disease Department, Sendler was able to smuggle children out of the ghetto. Not only did she forge documents for these children, but she also taught older children Catholic prayers in order to blend in and keep their true identities hidden. Sendler used many methods to smuggle children from the ghetto. Babies and smaller children were often lightly drugged and hidden in burlap sacks and toolboxes, whilst older children escaped through the sewers and underground network as well as being smuggled out in suitcases. Once the Nazi’s brought in plans to clear the ghetto and send the remaining Jews to Treblinka extermination camp, Sendler’s efforts intensified and she was eventually captured. To put the amount of children she saved into perspective, of the 1,000,000 Jewish children in Poland, only 5,000 survived. Sendler’s selflessness accounted for half of those children. To preserve their identities, Sendler made sure to write the names and addresses of all the children she saved on cigarette papers which she buried in her garden. This was to ensure that the children she rescued had the chance to reconnect with their heritage and potentially find their families, if they survived. Even under torture, Sendler never gave up information that would lead the Nazi’s to these children. Sendler was recognised by Yad Vashem, received a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize and a letter from the Pope. However, despite all she did, Sendler remained modest about her achievement stating that she felt she was not a hero like many claimed and often had ‘pangs of conscience that [she] did so little’.
Forgotten Polish Women of the Second World War
Irena Sendler

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Forgotten Polish Women of the Second World War
Jadwiga Pilsudska

As Poland was becoming increasingly unsafe, those who could fled

As Poland was becoming increasingly unsafe, those who could fled. One of these people was Jadwiga Pilsudska, the daughter of Marshal Jozef Pilsudski, a revered Polish statesman and general, who helped Poland regain independence in 1918. His political influence made his surviving family a political threat to Nazis. Pilsudska found herself in the UK where she joined the Air Transport Auxiliary to aid in the war effort. From the age of seventeen, Pilsudska trained to fly gliders, obtaining her pilot's license and later her aircraft pilot’s license. Pilsudska and her colleagues, classed as ferry pilots, flew unarmed aircraft through the wartime British skies. These pilots flew blind with no radios, maps or way of defending themselves should they encounter the enemy. Despite these dangers, Pilsudska continued to risk everything to transport aircraft to and from their destinations. After the war, Pilsudska had to remain in the UK as Poland had fallen to communism. Her links to her father still made her a political threat to the new communist regime. Pilsudska never took British citizenship, travelling under a Nansen passport for political refugees, however when communism fell in 1989, she returned to Poland with her family for the first time in fifty years. Thanks to these two women risking their lives during the war, many were saved. Sendler put her life on the line to save thousands of Jewish lives, whilst indirectly Pilsudska risked hers and saved thousands by providing the aircraft and supplies needed to defeat Nazi forces.
Ancestry UK
Forgotten Polish Women of the Second World War

Caitlin Paterson

Caitlin Paterson is a historian who wrote for Edition two 'Forgotten Women of History'
Constance Markievicz: The Forgotten First Woman Elected To Parliament
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Hans Scholl
Memory History: The History of the Holocaust 1933-1945