Irena Sendler's biography
Irena Sendler was born on 15th February 1910 in Warsaw. She spent her childhood in Otwock where her father, Henryk Stanisław Krzyżanowski, a doctor, was the director of a sanatorium. In her diary, she wrote, “I was raised in a spirit in which religion, nationality and belonging to some race was a matter of indifference – it was the person who mattered!”.
She began her studies at Warsaw University 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 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 Warsaw University. 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 Mothers and Chidren Aid Section of the Free Polish University. Pat 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 Social Work and Public Health Department of the Warsaw City Council – which is where she worked when the War broke out.
A short time after the Germans entered Poland, together with her colleagues from the Department (Jadwiga Piotrowska, Irena Schultz and Jadwiga Deneka), she began organising help for Jews. In her statement to the Yad Vashem Institute, she wrote, “The basis for providing social welfare was the local interview. And so we falsified the interviews. We substituted false names and, in this way, we obtained money, food and clothing”.
After 16th November 1940, when the German sclosed 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 organising children’s activities and concerts.
”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.
Most likely in January 1943, she made contact with Julian Grobelny (“Trojan”), Chairman of the Council to Aid Jews “Żegota”. Linking with the structure of that Polish-Jewish underground organisation enabled it to combine its efforts with those of the staff of the Social Welfare Department. She took on the pseudonym of Jolanta. She passed money onto those in her charge, seeking new places for them to hide.
In August 1943, she joined the Children’s Department of ”Żegota”. In September, she took over the unit from Aleksandra Dargiel. A few days later, she was arrested by the Gestapo. She was released from Pawiak Prison thanks to the payment of a bribe financed by the Council- organised by her friend from the Welfare Department, Maria Palester. She became “Klara Dąbrowska”, changed her residence and continued to work with ”Żegota”.
When the Warsaw Uprising broke out, she was in the Palester home in Mokotów. Until Spetember, she served as a nurse at the first-aid post on Fałata Street. Under the surname Zgrzembski, her future husband Stefan 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.
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 prematurely in the 1990’s
She continued working in the Municpal 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 becam edirector of the Social Welfare Department of the Union of Invalids, a position she held for a dozen or so years, until she received her penion in the 1960’s due to her heart conditions.
According to her daught, Janina Zgrzembska, after 1956, on the wave of an antisemitic campaign, she considered a trip to Israel.In March 1968, she talked with Jadwiga Piotrowska about the creation of “a new Żegota”.
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 sapling in the Garden of the RIghteous. ”This sapling on mountain in Jerusalem is more than just a monument. A monument can be destroyed, but a Tree of Remembrance will always grow”.
She died on 12th May 2008 at the age of ninety-eight.
Karolina Dzięciołowska / English translation: Andrew Rajcher, May 2018
Among other subjects, we present her co-workers and people who survived the Holocaust thanks to her help.
We also present commemorations held in her honour in Poland and in Israel,
as well as Irena Sendler memorabilia from POLIN Museum collection.
Anna Bikont, Sendlerowa. W ukryciu, Warszawa 2017.
Teresa Prekerowa, Konspiracyjna Rada Pomocy Żydom w Warszawie 1942-1945, Warszawa 1982.
Ignacy Strączek, Interview with Janina Zgrzembska, POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews Archive, Warszawa 2014.
Jewish Historical Institute Archive, Collection of Holocaust Survivor testimonies (section 301), Sendler Irena 6313; 6466.