Irena Sendler’s biography

Irena Sendler is one of the best known Polish Righteous Among the Nations. She was granted this title for her honourable deeds during the Second World War – active in the underground and in the “Żegota Council to Aid Jews, Irena Sendler was a mastermind behind the action to rescue Jewish children from the Warsaw ghetto. Together with a group of female associates she managed to save the lives of several hundred children. To find out more, read 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 wrote.

Irena Sendler was born on 15th February 1910 in Warsaw. She spent her childhood in Otwock where her father, Stanisław Henryk Krzyżanowski, a doctor, was the director of a sanatorium.

Before the War

She began her studies at University of Warsaw in 1928. As a student, she joined the Union of Polish Democratic Youth. On and off, she studied law and Polish studies, neither of which she completed. Shortly before the outbreak of World War II, she prepared her Master’s thesis on a Polish writer Eliza Orzeszkowa, which she planned to defend in the autumn of 1939.  

In 1931, she married Mieczysław Sendler, an assistant in the Department of Classical Philology at University of Warsaw. An officer in September 1939, he spent five and a half years in the German prisoner-of-war camp in Woldenberg.

Sendler began her professional life in 1932. She worked in the legal department for the Mother and Child Assistance Division at the Free Polish University. At the same time, she acted as a social worker, psychotherapist and, as we would call it today, a sex educator. When, in 1935, her section closed down, she obtained a position in the Warsaw Department of Social Welfare and Public Health – which is where she worked when the War broke out.

The Outbreak of War

A short time after the Germans entered Poland, together with her colleagues from the Department (Jadwiga Piotrowska, Irena Schultz and Jadwiga Deneko), she began organising help for Jews.

In her statement to the Yad Vashem Institute, she wrote:

“The basis for providing social welfare was a background survey. The idea was to fake these surveys. So, we would write some random Polish surname and thus we got money or clothing.” 

Help for Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto

After 16th November 1940, when the Germans closed off the Warsaw Ghetto, Sendler entered the ghetto thanks to a pass issued to her by the director of the Municipal Sanitation Department, Juliusz Majkowski. At that time, she acted on her own. She visited friends, providing them with food, medicines and helped them to sell their belongings. Over time, she began helping in organisation of children’s activities and concerts in the ghetto. 

“The majority of social workers had passes, but children were moved from the ghetto only incidentally. In the main, carers only began their work after the children or adults had been led out of the ghetto,” said Jadwiga Piotrowska.

“During 1940–1942, we placed a dozen or so Jewish infants into the Polish side,” recalled Sendler. Most probably, even before 22nd July 1942 – the beginning of the German operation to liquidate the Warsaw Ghetto – she sought finances to save Jewish children. After the liquidation began, her pass continued to be valid.

The “Żegota” Council to Aid Jews

Most likely in January 1943, she made contact with Julian Grobelny (“Trojan”), Chairman of the “Żegota” Council to Aid Jews. Linking with the structure of that Polish-Jewish underground organisation enabled to combine its efforts with those of the staff of the Social Welfare Department. Irena took on the pseudonym “Jolanta.” She passed money onto those in need, seeking new places for them to hide.

In August 1943, she joined the Children’s Department of “Żegota”. In September, Irena Sendler took over the unit from Aleksandra Dargiel and a few days later got arrested by the Gestapo.

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Pawiak Prison

Irena Sendler was released from Pawiak Prison thanks to the payment of a bribe financed by the Council, organised by her friend from the Social Welfare Department, Maria Palester. Sendler became “Klara Dąbrowska,” changed her residence and continued to work with “Żegota.”

When the Warsaw Uprising broke out on 1st August 1944, Irena was in the Palesters’ home in Warsaw district of Mokotów. Until Spetember, she served as a nurse at the medical aid unit on Fałata Street. Under the surname Zgrzembski, her future husband Adam Celniker hid with her. She had earlier helped him in the ghetto. An entire group had escaped from the camp in Pruszków and ended up in Okęcie, where together they had set up a hospital post. 

Family and Work after the War

For a few years after the War, survivor girls Irena Wojdowska and Teresa Tucholska lived with her. She divorced Mieczysław Sendler and, years later, they re-united. She had two sons and a daughter. One of the boys died soon after birth. The second son suffered from heart problems and passed away in the 1990’s. 

She continued working in the Social Welfare Department. She was involved in social work and education. She was active in the League of Women and, in the Warsaw National Council, she chaired the Widows and Orphans Committee and the Health Committee. She belonged to the National League to Fight Racism, founded by “Żegota” activists Arczyński, Berman, Rek and Bartoszewski. She also belonged to the Friends of Children Association and to the Society of Secular Schools.

In 1947, she joined the Polish Workers Party and became part of the Social-Professional Department of the Polish Workers Party Central Committee. She was active in the Ministries of Education and Health. In 1950, she was removed from her position as head of the Municipal Social Welfare Department. She became director of the Social Welfare Department of the Union of Invalids, a position she held for a dozen or so years, until she received her pension in the 1960’s due to her heart conditions. 

According to her daughter, Janina Zgrzembska, after 1956, on the wave of an antisemitic campaign, she considered going to Israel. In March 1968, she talked with Jadwiga Piotrowska about the creation of “a new Żegota.”

The Title of Righteous Among the Nations

In 1946, she received the Gold Cross of Merit for saving Jews during the occupation – the first of many awards presented to her after the War. The Yad Vashem Institute in Jerusalem honoured her with the title of Righteous Among the Nations in 1965. A dozen or so years later, in 1983, during a visit to Israel, she planted an olive tree in the Garden of the Righteous.

“A tree on a mountain in Jerusalem is even more than a monument. The monument could be destroyed, and the Memorial Tree will always grow.” 

She died on 12th May 2008 at the age of ninety-eight.

  Karolina Dzięciołowska / English translation: Andrew Rajcher, May 2018 
The article is based on: bibliography

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