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  • On 12 May 2008, Irena Sendler (undercover name "Jolanta") died at the age of 98. She was born on February 15th, 1910, in Otwock. During her studies at the Warsaw University, she was fighting the anti-Semitic attitude among the Polish students. She was a social worker in Warsaw in the 1930s bringing help to the poor. During the Second World War, Sendler lived in Warsaw working for the city's Social Welfare Department and helping the Jews by offering them food and shelter.

    She also worked with the Jewish Social Self-help. Irena joined the Council for Aid to Jews (Żegota) and became the head of the Children's Division. The organization was established on September27th, 1942 in Warsaw on the initiative of the Polish Exile Government. "Żegota" comprised the representatives from Polish and Jewish political organizations. Irena Sendler, together with the other Żegota activists, helped save 2.500 Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto by providing them with false Aryan documents and sheltering them in children's homes, in substitute Christian families or Catholic orphanages.

    She became active in the Polish resistance movement. In 1943, Sendler was arrested by the Gestapo, brutally tortured, and sentenced to death. After she was rescued by the Polish Underground she participated in the Warsaw Uprising as a nurse. After the war, she helped form children's homes as well as old people's homes. In 1965, Sendler was recognized by Yad Vashem as a "Righteous Among the Nations" and in 1991 was granted the honorary citizenship of Israel. In 2003, she received the Order of the White Eagle, Poland's highest civilian distinction. Sendler was also awarded the Jan Karski Award "For Courage and Heart". She was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize twice. In 2007, she was honoured by Poland's Senate In the same year she received an international award granted by the children from around the world, namely the Order of the Smile. Michael Schudrich, The Chief Rabbi of Poland, once said about Sendler: "Not only did she save Polish children's lives but she also saved Europe's soul". Sendler is recognized as one of the biggest Polish heroes of the 20th Century, as a person with a great heart and a paragon of civic virtues.

     "Irena Sendler - the good conscience of Poland"

    [13/05/08] "The message that Irena Sendler has left this world brings a deep sorrow. But also a reminder that one individual can mean so much for the rest of us. As a young social worker in the occupied Poland she committed herself to trying to save Jewish children from the nazi extermination campaign. She joined the resistance and organised a group of women who smuggled children to safety. It is estimated that more than 2.500 Jews survived thanks to her daring efforts."
    Commissioner Hammarberg met Irena Sendler in 2007.

    Irena Sendler, saviour of children in the Warsaw ghetto, died on May 12th, aged 98 ((May 22nd 2008, From The Economist print edition)

    POLAND suffered more than any other European country during the second world war. And there was an extra twist: the history of that suffering was then systematically distorted by the Soviet- imposed Communist rulers, and widely misunderstood abroad. Auschwitz, for example, is still often referred to as a ‘Polish
    death camp' rather than one run by the country's Nazi occupiers, in which huge numbers of Polish citizens perished. And gentile Poles are typically imagined to have rejoiced, collaborated or simply stood by as their Jewish compatriots were exterminated. Poles, said the former Israeli leader Yitzhak Shamir, ‘imbibe anti-Semitism with their mother's milk.'

    Certainly prejudice was prevalent in pre-war Poland; but many Poles defied it. One of the bravest was Irena Sendler. As a doctor's daughter, she had been brought up in a house that was open to anyone in pain or need, Jew or gentile. In the segregated lecture halls at Warsaw University, where she studied Polish literature, she and likeminded friends deliberately sat on the ‘Jewish' benches. When nationalist thugs beat up a Jewish friend, she defaced her grade card, crossing out the stamp that allowed her to sit on the ‘Aryan'
    seats. For that, the university suspended her for three years. All this was good preparation for the defiance she was to show after 1939, when the Germans invaded.

    She was, a friend said, ‘born to selflessness, not called to it'. Certainly she had good genes. A rebellious great-grandfather was deported to Siberia. Her father died of typhus in 1917, after treating patients his colleagues shunned. Many were Jewish. Leaders of the Jewish community offered money to her hard-up mother for young Irena's education. Like many social workers in pre-war Poland, Mrs Sendler belonged to the Socialist party: not for its political ideology, she said, but because it combined compassion with dislike of money-worship.

    No religion motivated her: she acted z potrzeby serca, ‘from the need of my heart', Under Nazi occupation the Jews of Warsaw were herded into the city ghetto: four square kilometres for around 400,000 souls. Even before the deportations to the Treblinka death camp started, death could be arbitrary and instant. Yet a paradox created a sliver of hope. Squalor and near-starvation (the monthly bread ration was two kilos, or 4.5lb) created ideal conditions for typhus, which would have killed Germans too. So the Nazis allowed Mrs Sendler and her colleagues in and out of the tightly guarded ghetto to distribute medicines and vaccinations.
    That bureaucratic loophole allowed her to save more Jews than the far better known Oscar Schindler. It was astonishingly risky. Some children could be smuggled out in lorries, or in trams supposedly returning empty to the depot. More often they went by secret passageways from buildings on the outskirts of the ghetto. To save one Jew, she reckoned, required 12 outsiders working in total secrecy: drivers for the vehicles; priests to issue false baptism certificates; bureaucrats to provide ration cards; and most of all, families or religious orders to care for them. The penalty for helping Jews was instant execution.

    Names in glass jars To make matters even riskier, Mrs Sendler insisted on recording the children's details to help them trace their families later. These were written on pieces of tissue paper bundled on her bedside table; the plan was to hurl them out of the window if the Gestapo called. The Nazis did catch her (thinking she was a small cog, not the linchpin of the rescue scheme) but did not find the files, secreted in a friend's armpit. Under torture she revealed nothing. Thanks to a well-placed bribe, she escaped execution; the children's files were buried in glass jars. Mrs Sendler spent the rest of the war under an assumed name.

    The idea of a heroine's treatment appalled her. ‘I feel guilty to this day that I didn't do more', she said. Besides, she felt she had been a bad daughter, risking her elderly mother's life with her wartime work, a bad wife to both her husbands, and a neglectful mother. Her daughter once asked to be admitted to the children's home where her mother worked after the war, in order to see more of her.

    Mrs Sendler need not have worried. Far from being honoured, she narrowly avoided a death sentence from the Communist authorities. Her crime was that her work had been authorised and financed by the Polish government-in-exile in London; later, she helped soldiers of the Home Army, the wartime resistance. Both outfits were now reviled as imperialist stooges. In 1948 repeated interrogations by the secret police in late pregnancy cost the life of her second child, born prematurely. She was not allowed to travel, and her children
    could not study full-time at university. ‘What sins have you got on your conscience, Mama?' her daughter asked her.

    It was not until 1983 that the Polish authorities allowed her to travel to Jerusalem, where a tree was planted in her honour at Yad Vashem. Many of the children she had saved sought her out: now elderly themselves, all grateful, but some still yearning for details of their forgotten parents. In 2003 she received Poland's highest honour, the order of the White Eagle. It came a little late.  


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