Irena Sendler's 108th Birthday (1910-2008)
In her latest book, Sendlerowa. W ukryciu1. Anna Bikont wrote, "Irena is barely twenty years old (...) She is resolute and empathetic. She has leftist views and is socially aware. One can see in her a self-confidence, a willingness to fight and a modern outlook. We are in the 1930's. Women with illegitimate children are referred to as "fallen" and she is teaching how to treat venereal diseases and protect against pregnancy. She is hardworking and a well-organised rebel - the right characteristics for a rare and invaluable type of social activist".
The author pays particular attention to Irena's childood and youth, which determined her later social awareness and devotion to the needy, especially children.
"People can only be divided into the good and the bad. Race is irrelevant, nationality is irrelevant and religion is irrelevant" – Irena Sendler
Irena Sendler's personality was shaped primarily by Stanisław's father, a doctor and social worker who, in Otwock near Warsaw, ran a tuberculosis sanatorium, treating the poor for free. His patients were often poor Jews. When he died in 1917, Jews paid for his funeral and offered Irena a scholarship which, however, was not accepted by her mother.
As Irena recalls, "Once, my father pulled up at the gate in a buggy. He got out and saw that there were children playing in the garden, that I was playing with the children in the garden and that, behind the fence, there stood Jewish children standing and watching. They couldn't speak Polish. It would never have occurred to them to enter the gate and play with the Polish children. My father saw this and asked, 'Why are those children standing there and you're not playing with them?'. I looked around. I was five years old and yet had no sense of socialism. My father said, 'Bring those children in immediately and you are always to play with them'".
Following the death of her father, Irena and her mother moved to Piotrków Trybunalski. In 1927, she began studying law at Warsaw University. She later switched to the Polish Studies Department and, three years later, interrupted her studies. She became active in the Polish Union of Democratic Youth, a leftist-Piłsudski student organisation. In 1931, she married Mieczysław Sendler and took a job at the Social Work-Education College, established at the Wolna Wszechnica Polska – a modern university under the directorship of Professor Halina Redlińska.
Irena Sendler recalls, "At the time, that whole university was regarded as a community college so, with my political past, it suited me very well. The work there complemented my world view".
During her work there, she became known as a committed social activist. She conducted local interviews in the poor districts of Warsaw. She took care of the young, the unemployed and, mostly, single mothers. She would visit them, talk with them, support them and act as their representative in alimony proceedings.
While working at the Social Work-Education College, and then from 1935 in the Social Welfare Department of the Warsaw City Council, she encountered a group of a dozen or so women with whom, during World War II, she saved Jewish children from the Holocaust.
To mark the "Year of Irena Sendler", POLIN Museum Resource Center is displaying a rare piece of memorabilia – the Order of the White Eagle medal presented to Irena Sendler, in 2003, by the Polish President Aleksander Kwaśniewski. The medal was donated to the Museum's collection by Irena's daughter, Janina Zgrzembska. Irena's Righteous Among the Nations medal is on permanent display in the Museum.
In addition, POLIN Museum Education Center has prepared special educational activities for students and teachers. School groups are invited to participate in the "We Remember Irena Sendler" workshops, while teachers are invited to a course entitled "How to Teach About the Holocaust". A special educational package will soon be made available on our website. More information about the workshops and the courses can be found on www.polin.pl.
Activities promoting the story of Irena Sendler are prepared as part of the Museum's "The Polish Righteous – Recalling Forgotten History” project. To mark the tenth anniversary of the passing of Irena Sendler, which falls on 12th May, new articles will appear on our website about Irena Sendler, her collaborators and the individuals who survived the Holocaust.
1Citation: A. Bikont, Sendlerowa. W ukryciu, Warszawa 2017 and "Kurjer Warszawski" 1910, No. 46 (90).