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’.