February 15, 1910 (Warsaw, Poland) – May 12, 2008 (Warsaw, Poland)
The story of Irena Sendler lay silent for more than eighty years and would likely have gone to the grave with her were it not for a group of Kansas teenagers. Inspired by a newspaper clipping about the courageous life of Ms. Sendler, the children searched for further information about her life but found nothing. Discontent to let it lay, the group, finding Irena still living, went to Warsaw where they met her and learned of her wartime efforts to save the lives of over 2,500 Jewish children and over 3,000 Jewish adults and families.
At the outbreak of World War II, Ms. Sendler was a Polish Catholic social worker. When the German’s invaded Poland in September 1939, the Jews of Warsaw were corraled into a sixteen block, walled-off “Ghetto”, the size of Central Park in New York City. It is estimated that over 450,000 Jews lived in the Warsaw Ghetto at that time. From 1939-1942, Irena, with some help, obtained false Christian identification cards for over 3,000 Jewish adults and families to help them escape the Nazi-occupied city. By 1942, however, the war had intensified. As such, many Jews had been transferred from the ghetto to the Treblinka death camp. Ms. Sendler, with a vast network of “Ghetto assistants”, churches, and orphanages, along with the Polish Resistance group, Zegota, used their access to the Warsaw Ghetto to get the children out to safety.
With each child freed, Irena recorded their Jewish identity and family names on a thin piece of tissue paper, before placing it in a jar that she buried for safe keeping. The foster families the children were placed with for the duration were told from the start that the children were to be reunited with their birth families once the war was over.
In 1943, having worked to save over 2,500 children from the Ghetto, Irena was arrested by the Nazi’s. She was imprisoned, interrogated and tortured, but never compromised the identities of her network. On the day she was to be executed, her fellow Zegota Resistance members, bribed the German executioner, who in turn, assisted in her escape. The next day, everyone thought her dead, though she was hidden deep within the city, where she waited out the war.
At the war’s end, Irena went to work at once, unburying her jars of names so that she might reunite the Jewish children with their families. It is an inconceivable fate that most of the birth parents of those children did not survive Treblinka, though the children, because of Irena Sendler and her network, were given the right to survive.
Ms. Sendler’s story lives on through her daughter, and the work of the Kansas teenager’s who brought it to life. Their play: Life in a Jar, has been performed throughout the United States. PBS has also made a documentary of Irena’s life, entitled, In the Name of Their Mothers available on DVD.
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