Irena Sendler: The Polish Humanitarian Who Helped Save 2,500 Children
Irena Sendler learned this life lesson from her father: “When someone is drowning, you don’t ask if they can swim, you just jump in and help.”
That’s exactly what Sendler did after the Nazis invaded Poland in September 1939. As an employee at the Polish Social Welfare Department, Sendler and some colleagues falsified thousands of documents to help Polish Jews.
But Sendler wanted to do more. Shortly after the German invasion, the Nazis had crammed nearly half a million Jews into the Warsaw Ghetto, where many suffered from starvation. To help, Sendler quietly signed up for the Polish resistance movement, joining an underground group called Zegota.
Slowly, Sendler began to enter the ghetto under the guise of checking for typhus. While there, she brought food, medicine, and clothing to the desperate people inside. But Sendler did not leave the ghetto empty-handed. Gradually, she began taking babies and small children out.
Smuggling the children out of the ghetto in suitcases, packages, and even coffins, Sendler transported them away to safety. Some were sent to live with friends of Zegota. Others were sent to Christian Polish families or orphanages and given Christian names. But Sendler kept track of them all — determined to one day return them to their families if at all possible.
When the Nazis finally caught up to her, Sendler refused to reveal the identities of her comrades, or any of the children she helped save. Though the Nazis brutally tortured her, Sendler remained silent.
She even survived a death sentence — thanks to a last-minute bribe from Zegota. Amazingly, even though her work had almost cost her her life, Sendler returned to her position with Zegota under a different name.
Thanks to her bravery, some 2,500 Jewish children escaped the Holocaust. But like other heroes on this list, Sendler refused to call herself such.
“The term ‘hero’ irritates me greatly,” Sendler later said, though Israel honored her as one of the Righteous Among the Nations in 1965. “The opposite is true. I continue to have pangs of conscience that I did so little.”