Irena Sendler’s Children
In the collective consciousness, Irena Sendler’s children numbered two and a half thousand, those whom this Righteous lady personally rescued from the Holocaust. According to the research of historians and available documentation, around five hundred Jewish children were helped by Sendler and her dozen or so close associates. Between 1940 and 1942, she organised these activities personally. Between 1943 and 1944, she acted as part of the Council to Aid Jews “Żegota”.
After the War, Sendler remained in close contact with many individuals who had survived as children and also with those in whose survival she had not been directly involved. She was important to them – perhaps because she personified those to whom they were grateful for receiving help during the War, and perhaps because she supported them in their later lives.
Testimonies submitted, after the War, by Sendler and her colleagues speak about a dozen or so infants taken out of the Warsaw Ghetto between 1940 and 1942. “Żegota” documents show that, in the initial period of their activities – the beginning of 1943 – the Council ensured financial care of ninety-nine children. In May 1944, the Children’s Department, with Irena Sendler as its director, supported three hundred children in hiding. The network of people involved in these activities was shattered with the outbreak of the Warsaw Uprising in August 1944.
It is commonly believed that, also as a result of a performance in the 1990’s in the USA of the school theatre performance of Life in a Jar about her, the surnames and first names of children saved were kept by Irena Sendler in milk bottles or jars. The list was intended to assist Jewish organisations in finding the children after the War. The list only appeared in the 1980’s in reports submitted by Sendler and her colleague Jadwiga Piotrowska. Piotrowska recalled that the list included the names of several dozen children rescued in her home. According to both accounts, the bottles containing the papers were buried under an apple tree in Piotrowska’s garden on ulica Lekarska in Warsaw. According to Sendler, one had to have survived . The papers in it were to be given to Adolf Berman, Chairman of the Central Committee of Polish Jews. While working on a book about Irena Sendler, Ann Bikont searched for this document in both Polish and overseas archives. However, she found neither the list nor any unambiguous conformation of its existence.
Determining the number of children rescued, and those whose rescue was attempted, seems to be important from today’s perspective. This number represents the lives of specific people. However, based upon available resources, it is impossible to determine exactly how many children were saved. However, the figure of Irena Sendler is not one of numbers. It is a symbol. Sendler did not remain indifferent. She acted to help those who needed help the most. Her energy was transferred to others.
Reports, which contain memories of Irena Sendler personal involvement in their survival, were submitted, after the War, by Teresa Körner, Michał Głowiński, Yoram Gross and Piotr Zettinger.
Sendler met Teresa Körner (during and after the War Teresa Tucholska) in a village near Warsaw in the autumn of 1942 or in the first months of 1943. The girl, who had witnessed the deaths of her parents and her sister, was found by Julian Grobelny, a family friend from before the War. Sendler placed her in a Central Welfare Council camp, where Teresa took care of the children. For a few years after the War, she lived with Irena Sendler and her husband Stefan Zgrzembski.
As a boy, in the winter of 1944, Michał Głowiński, today a professor of literature, was taken into Father Bodeun House on Nowogrodzka in Warsaw, thanks to Irena Sendler. After a short time, from there, he was taken into an institution run by the Turkowice nuns.
Yoram (Jerzy) Gross, a teenager, visited Anna Kukulska, in whose home at that time lived Stefan Zgrzembki (Adam Celnikier), a friend of Irena Sendler. The boy confided in Zgrzembski that his mother, sister and brother were in hiding in Warsaw. Zgrzembski passed this information on to Irena Sendler and thus Gross’ family was provided with 500 złotych per month support from “Żegota”.
Piotr Zysman, today “Zettinger”, pieced together his own story from, among others, the history of Irena Sendler. He was four and a half years old when his parents gave him up to the “Aryan side”. According to Sendler, he arrived at her apartment via the sewers at night. From there, he was moved on in the morning. He passed through consecutive apartments and eventually was cared for by nuns. After the War, the family kept in close contact with Irena Sendler. Piotr tutored her children.
Elżbieta Ficowska and Katarzyna Meloch are among those children who were saved thanks to people who worked together with Irena Sendler.
Elżbieta Ficowska was raised by Stanisława Bussold, a midwife, whose home acted as an “emergency clinic” for escapees from the ghetto. There they waited to be provided with, among other things, false papers and a new hiding-place. The six-month-old girl was to spend only a few days there and was then meant to be passed on to be cared for by other women. When Bussold said that the next carer was ill, she kept Elżbieta in her own home. Irena Sendler, with whom she worked, became one of the girl’s “aunts” and, over time, became one of the most important figures in her life.
After being extracted from the Warsaw Ghetto, Katarzyna Meloch spent a few weeks in the apartment of Jadwiga Deneka, a pre-War pupil and friend of her mother’s, one of Irena Sendler’s closest associates. Later, similar to Michał Głowiński, she was taken to Turkowice. After the War, Irena Sendler supported her during Katarzyna’s worse periods. She rang her daily and motivated her, “She gave me a piece of her own fortitude”.
Lea Balint and Renata Skotnicka-Zajdman also belonged to the post-War circle of Sendler children. The “Żegota” Council to Aid Jews paid for Lea Balint (Alterman)’s stay in the convent of the Franciscan Sisters of the Family of Mary in Brwinów, where her parents had placed her. She was five-years-old and, for the following three years, she became “Alicja Herla”. Renata Skotnicka-Zajdman became friends with Irena Sendler long after the War – in 1993, she met her at a conference marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. When the War broke out, she was eleven-years-old. During the occupation, she was a nomad – she escaped to Russia, returned to the Germans, the ghetto and to work intended for someone older. As a thirteen-year-old, she pretended to be sixteen. She survived due to her will to live, the involvement of her siblings, nannies, and the Czerniakowski and Gołąbek families – friends of her brother who, on numerous occasions, took her under their roof on ulica Kacza in Warsaw. After the War, she emigrated to Canada, where she was active in the Canadian Polish-Jewish Heritage Foundation.
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, Wołowiec 2017.
POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews Archive: materials concerning Elżbieta Ficowska, Teresa Körner, Katarzyna Meloch, Jadwiga Piotrowska, Maria Palester, Irena Sendler.
Jewish Historical Institute Archive: documents regarding Jadwiga Piotrowska, 349/24/944.