Sendler Irena

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Irena Sendler's Biography

Irena Sendler grew up in Otwock where her father Stanisław Krzyżanowski, opened the first tuberculosis clinic there. She played with Jewish children there and, by the time she was 5-7 years old, she could understand Yiddish. "I was raised in a spirit that taught that religion, nationality, race did not matter – what mattered was the person!", she wrote in her autobiography.

Three years after her father’s death in February 1917, Irena and her mother moved to live with family in Piotrków Trybunalski. After completing her matriculation, went to university in Warsaw. For two years, she studied law at Warsaw University, after which she switch to Polish studies which, in turn, she left after three years. She was active in the Polish Democratic Youth Union as well as in the Polish Socialist Party. In 1931, she married Mieczysław Sendler, who was at that time an assistant professor in the Classical Philology department at the Warsaw University. 

In 1932 she was hired in the Mothers and Children's Care Section of the Free Polish University.

"At that time, the whole University was looked upon as a college inspiring communism. So, with my political past, I didn't really fit in".

The School of Social Work and Education at the University was headed by Helena Radlińska, the founder of a grassroots movement based on the social pedagogy. She had educated a generation of community workers, among them Sendler and a group of a dozen or so women who, together with her, would later save Jewish children. In 1935 the Citizens’ Social Aid Committee was dismantled. For this reason Irena Sendler was moved to the Social Welfare Department of the Warsaw City Council.

In 1937, she resumed her studies. She stood in defence of her Jewish friends who were attacked by nationalists. She wrote her master's thesis, but did not manage to take the examination which was probably planned to take place in the autumn of 1939.  War broke out.  During the September Campaign, Mieczysław Sendler was captured and spent five and a half years in a German camp in Woldenberg.

Years later, in a statement for Yad Vashem she wrote:

"Immediately after the Germans invaded Poland, I began organising help forthree friends from my department - Jadwiga Piotrowska, Irena Schultz and Jadwiga Deneka".

In her autobiography, she wrote:

"How did we do it? The basic activity of the Social Welfare Department was to provide basic advice. And so we forged interviews with fictitious surnames. In this way, we could obtain money, food items and clothing. (…) At some point, the Germans sent trusted individuals – Volksdeutsch – into the whole of Warsaw. They checked our interviews. A scandal then erupted"

On 16th November 1940, the Germans locked the gates to the ghetto. One-third of Warsaw's inhabitants now found itself behind its walls. Those 300,000 individuals included friends of Irena Sendler, as well as her future husband, Adam Celnikier.

Sendler and her Department colleagues could enter the ghetto legally:

"Two of us had passes as the result of the Director of the Municipal Sanitary Unit, Dr. Juliusz Majkowski, entering me and my colleague, Irena Schulz, onto his list of workers who could enter the ghetto to carry out disinfections. Obviously, that is not what we did. We were only on that list so that we could get those passes".

She would stay inside the ghetto for longer periods than she should have. As Anna Bikont wrote in her book Sendler. In Hiding:

"(...) she accompanied her friends in desperate attempts to provide life's normalities - organising classes for children, readings, concerts, holidays, as well as underground activities". 

In order not to stand out, she wore a Star of David armband. The activities she and her colleague carried out were done at their own initiative. At that time, above all, their support activities consisted of providing food, medicines and help in selling personal items.

On 22nd July 1942, the Germans began liquidation operations in the Warsaw ghetto.

Sendler had probably already sought additional financial resources in order to Jewish children. The cost of maintaining Jews on the "Aryan side" was high and, due to the nightmare of the liquidation operations, more and more parents decided to move their children outside the wall. As Emanuel Ringleblum wrote:

"In order to set a child up on the Aryan side, an amount of 10,000-20,000 złoty was required. Only wealthy people could afford to do that". 

It was probably in January 1943 that Irena Sendler made contact with Julian Grobelny ("Trojan"), Chairman of the Council to Aid Jews “Żegota.” Aligning herself into the structure of this underground Polish-Jewish organization enabled her to connect with the efforts of workers of its Welfare Department. Anna Bikont wrote:

"Whenever Żegota's money appeared, one could basically talk about 'Sendler's liaisons', although none of her co-workers, at the time, would have referred to themselves that way. As Jadwiga Piotrowska (codename: 'Jolanta') stated, 'We all took care of these Jewish children together'". 

There were several enrty/exit points to the ghetto – near the courts on Leszno, in the work brigades at the so-called "posts" when leaving for the "Aryan side", through basements and inside the sanitation trucks. Children were put into "Protective Points", where they adapted themselves to their new environment. Next,  they were placed with foster families or into care facilities – municipal and convents.

Sendler was responsible for handing over money for those in care. She searched for new locations when the current places turned out to be dangerous. In September 1943, she took over running the Children's Department from Aleksandra Dargiel.  A couple of weeks later, Sendler was arrested by the Gestapo at night in her apartment. Janina Grabowska, a Welfare Department colleague, underground co-conspirator and neightbour, had just visited her.

"It was my sick mother who woke up first. When I opened my eyes, the gestapo was already going crazy outside the door. (…) In accordance with my 'pre-determined' plan, I rushed to the window in order to throw out the children's wad of cards. Unfortunately, two Gestapo officers were standing under my window.  In this state of affairs, my plan, worked out over four years, collapsed. The Gestapo officers had already almost pushed in the door. I still had the presence of mind to throw the whole wad of cards into Grabowska's hands saying, 'This is a list of our children - hide it somewhere! Save it! It cannot get into the hands of the Gestapo!' (…) I then opened the door. Eleven of them barged in together with our caretaker. (…) The gestapo tore boards up from the floors and ripped tiles away from the stove. They were frantic. (…) They rushed over to my divan bed, unstitched pillows and sent feathers flying. Due to a lack of money, I didn't have a normal bed during the War, only a kind of grid on two wooden poles. This grid was apparently poorly strengthened and, as they ransacked this 'bed' and began unstitching mattresses and pillows, it collapsed". 

Under the bed was a bag containing underground documents. That the piece of furniture crushed the bag so that "the Germans themselves had hidden what would have been the most dangerous to me".

The gestapo took Irena Sendler to Pawiak Prison.

"In Pawiak, I received secret notes from “Żegota” through the underground prison network. In them, they tried to cheer me up. These letters kept my spirit alive. They allowed me to believe in people because, looking at the actions of the 'Uebermenschen', the Germans, one could completely lose faith in humanity. (…) One beautiful winter morning, they came into my cell and called out my name from a list. (…) They are packing us onto trucks – there were a lot of us, maybe 30 or 40 people. (…) We drive through Warsaw, saying goodbye to it with the look in our eyes, while the eyes of the people walking on the streets are saying farewell to us, because these trucks, known as 'budy (paddy-wagons)' were well known in the city! We arrive at ul. Szucha, at the headquarters of the Gestapo. (...) They unload us into a hall on the ground floor. The place is full of gestapo officers. They tell all whose names are read out to go off to the right. Finally, my name is read out and one of them tells me to go to the left. I found myself alone in a tiny room, here, I was overcome with a great panic and grief".

A gestapo officer entered the room and then, under the guise of having to take the prisoner to ul.Wiejska for further interrogation, he led her outside Pawiak, and released her. The German had been bribed by "Żegota". something which had been organised by Maria Palester. The organisation had secured Sendler's release after three weeks.

As she departed, the German on slapped her several times across the face.

"Blood was pouring all over me. I fell down. And when, with an effort, I managed to get up and I saw the Gestapo officer walking away into the distance, I began shivering with the cold because it was  winter. I understood one thing – that I had to walk away as quickly as possible. I went over to the nearest house which, at that time, contained a pharmacy. Today, it's a 'Ruch' kiosk where I buy my newspapers everyday". 

The shop-owner helped Sendler to recover a little, gave her a coat and some money for the tram.

From that time, Sendler went into hiding, using her underground name of 'Klara Dąbrowska'. For a certain time, she lived with her uncle in Nowy Sącz.

Upon her return to Warsaw, she resumed her work with 'Żegota'. 

The Warsaw Uprising found her together with Adam Celnikier at Łowicka Street. Until September, she served as a nurse at the sanitary point on Fałata Street. Thanks to bribing a policeman, they avoided being sent to the camp in Pruszków. The entire group managed to reach Okęcie, where they opened a sanitary point.

The Soviet army arrived on 17th January 1945.

After the War, she committed herself to public activities and to education. She operated as part of the re-emerging national structures. She belonged to the Polish United Workers' Party, which was indicative of her world-view already formed from before the War. During the War, she was already involved with Adam Celnikier, who changed his surname to "Zgrzembski". She left Mieczysław Sendler with whom, years later, she would reunite. She gave birth to two sons and a daughter. One of boys died soon after birth, while the other son had a heart condition and died prematurely in the 1990's. Her daughter, Janina Zgrzembska, is a regular guest of schools and organisations, whose aim is to promote Irena Sendler's wartime attitudes. 

According to her newest biography, Anna Bikont's Sendler. In Hiding, our heroine had a constant feeling of unfulfillment. She was disappointed in people and had a fear for own children whose father was a Jew.  But in the final, intense years of her life, when many people and circles had "discovered ” her for themselves and for the world, they brought her positive emotions.

"The entire 'circumstance' makes me tremendously uncomfortable, one which ceaselessly makes 'heroes' out of us. These great ceremonies which accompany the planting of a tree in Jerusalem, these great celebrations which are held in Israel – they are very much embarrassing to people of my sort who don't consider themselves great people, let alone heroes. What we did was something completely normal, something principled. If someone is drowning, someone else must reach out a hand or at least a little finger. Emphasising this as something unusual is embarrassing. A Jew, a Frenchman, a German are, after all, people – just like us. It was only that which motivated us. What we did sprang from the heart".

In 1965, Irena Sendler was honoured with the title of Righteous Among the Nations. In 1983, she planted an olive tree in the Avenue of the Righteous in Yad Vashem. "The little tree on the top of Jerusalem is even better than a monument. Monuments can be damageed, but the Tree of Remembrance will always grow".

Irena Sendler died on May 12th 2008 at the age of 98.

Selected distinctions, decorations, etc.:

  • Honorary Citizenship of the State of Israel (1991)
  • American teacher Norman Conrad, together with his students, prepared a theatrical play entitled "Life In a Jar", which was performed over two hundred times in the USA and Europe (1999)
  • the Tikkun Olam (Repairing the world) Award, Temple B’nai Yehuda (2002)
  • Order of the White Eagle (2003)
  • the Jan Karski Award for Valour and Courage, American Centre for Polish Culture, Washington (2003)
  • Nominated for Nobel Peace Prize by Children of the Holocaust Association (2003, 2007)
  • Commander's crioss With Star, Order of Polish Revival (2007)
  • Establishment of the Irena Sendler Award "For Repairing the World" – Life in a Jar Foundation and the Polish Ministryof Foreign Affairs (2006)
  • Motion of the Polish Senate acknowledging the activities of Irena Sendler and "Żegota" within the structure of the Polish State Underground (2007)
  • the Order of the Smile, nominated by 15-year-old Szymon Płóciennik of Zielona Góra (2007)
  • Honorary Citizenship of the Capital City of Warsaw (2007)
  • Honorary Citizenship of the City of Tarczyn (2007)
  • Motion of the Polish Sejm of Children and Youth honouring the work of Irena Sendler and the Underground Children's Department of the Council to Aid Jews "Żegota" during World War II (2008)

Read the History of the Council to Aid Jews "Żegota"

We present the stories of Council members, its structure, its activity methods,
memorials in Poland and Israel, as well as memorabilia from POLIN Museum collection.

Other Stories of Rescue in the Area