16th Anniversary of Irena Sendler’s death

Redakcja, 12 May 2024
Irena Sendler was one of the best known Polish Righteous Among the Nations. She was granted this title in 1965 for her honourable deeds during World War II – as a member of the underground as well as the “Żegota” Council to Aid Jews, she carried out – together with a group of female associates – the operation of rescuing Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto. Her actions during the German occupation reflected her outlook on life, evident also before and after the war. Irena Sendler was a true social activist – sensitive, brave and determined. On 16th anniversary of Irena Sendler’s death, we encourage you to read her story on the Polish Righteous website. In this article, we have prepared the most important historical information, as well as a selection of articles, photographs and educational films from POLIN Museum collection, which allow us to better understand her biography.

“I was raised to believe that the question of religion, nation, belonging to any race is of no importance – it’s a human being that matters!,” Irena Sendler.

“We had to act very subtly and carefully because the children were terrified, scared and dreadfully missed their mother, father, grandmother and the whole family. Unceasingly, we had to remind them that ‘your name has changed and you’re not Rachela anymore but Zosia now.’ It was a very difficult experience for us [adults] let alone how shocking it had to be for the children.”

“I wish that the memory of many noble people who risked their lives and saved Jewish brothers, but whose names nobody remembers, would live on. But the cruelty and hatred that drove people to denounce their neighbours and murder one another must be kept in our memory and in the memory of future generations. We witnessed indifference to the tragedy of those who perished. I do hope that this memory serves as a warning to the world. Let us hope that a similar tragedy will never happen again.”

Who was Irena Sendler? The most important historical information

  1. From 1935, she was employed as a social worker at the Warsaw Department of Social Welfare and Public Health. She devoted special attention to young women and homeless single mothers. She supported them and instructed them, e.g., how to prevent venereal diseases or unwanted pregnancy.

  2. During the German occupation, she and her colleagues from the Department made efforts to help Jews, and children in particular – they would lead them out of the ghetto and seek shelter on the so-called “Aryan side.” The children taken out of the ghetto were directed to Polish families or care facilities.

  3. From 1941, escape from the ghetto and hiding outside its walls was punishable by death. Germans also punished those who helped Jews hide. Attempts to escape were made mainly in 1942, when the so-called Great Liquidation Action, i.e. deportations of the ghetto residents to extermination camps, took place. The children taken out of the ghetto were directed to Polish families or care facilities.

  4. In September 1943, under the code-name “Jolanta,” she became a head of the children’s division of the “Żegota” Council to Aid Jews, managing a network of associates who transferred money to those in need and searched for safe hiding places. 

  5. Several days after taking up the post in the Council, Irena Sendler was arrested by the Gestapo. She got out of the Pawiak prison after a month, thanks to the financial support of “Żegota.” After being released from prison, Sendler continued her activities.

  6. After the war, Irena Sendler continued to provide help to the most needy – she organized orphanages for children, co-founded nursing homes and social welfare facilities. She never gave up her leftist views. Under the new political circumstances of postwar Poland, she joined Polish United Workers’ Party [PZPR]. She used to say that she understood socialism as a service to others, as helping those in need: the poor, the vulnerable and the helpless.

  7. She, as one of the first Polish women, was honored with the title of the Righteous Among the Nations, awarded by the Yad Vashem Institute to people who provided Jews with selfless help during the Holocaust. She received the medal in 1965. Today, it is exhibited at POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews.
  8. In Poland, she was honored with the Knight’s Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta, the Order of the White Eagle, as well as the award from children – the Order of the Smile. In 2007, she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Near POLIN Museum there is an Avenue named after her.

Read more: The Story of Irena Sendler

Irena Sendler in the public debate—repeated mistakes

  • “Irena Sendler saved 2,500 Jewish children” – it is not possible to determine the exact number and identity of the children saved, in occupied Poland, during the Holocaust. The number of 2,500, which has been repeated in many publications, results from a public statement by Irena Sendler herself. However, Anna Bikont, in her book “Sendler. In Hiding” (2017), proved that this number was exaggerated. Current estimates, supported by the analysis of sources, indicate that no more than 500 children were saved. As Holocaust researchers emphasise, in discussing Irena Sendler’s activities, the numbers are not the most important, rather the commitment and dedication she and her associates showed during the years of the German occupation. 

  • “Irena Sendler led Jewish children out of the ghetto” – Sendler’s task was not to lead the children through the gate of the ghetto but to, afterwards, organise their lives on the “Aryan side”. She found people who took care of the children. She obtained money for their maintenance and was alert to changing their hiding place in the event of denunciation. It is also worth remembering that, contrary to popular opinion, the action of taking children out of the Warsaw Ghetto was not carried out in the first years of the existence of the “closed district.” Escapes from the ghetto to the “Aryan side” were undertaken mainly in 1942, when the “liquidation operation” began.

  • It should be stressed that Irena Sender did not carry out these rescue activities alone. She worked together with a group of social workers, among whom were Jadwiga Piotrowska, Irena Schultz, Jadwiga Deneko, and Jan Dobraczyński. The organisation of aid for Jews, during the German occupation, required financial resources, contacts and a network of committed associates.

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