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Irena Sendler: The saviour of the Warsaw Ghetto

Irena Sendler in December 1944 | Image: Wikimedia Commons

Defiance, courage and sacrifice. Rightful terms to describe the tale of Irena Sendler. Receiving the Order of the White Eagle and nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize twice, her actions during WW2 were one of numerous that have illuminated a dark period of human history.

It was dawn on 1st September 1939 when the sounds of Luftwaffe bombers and fighters pierced the morning sky above Poland and German troops marched towards Warsaw. It only took a few weeks for the nation to crumble at the mercy of the Nazis’ relentless Blitzkrieg tactics. The arrival of Soviet forces on the 17th ensured a swift and efficient invasion, one that would trigger a 5-year global battle, resulting in the loss of some 75 million lives.

Despite the declaration of war on the 3rd September by Britain and France, the allies, haunted by memories of World War I were hesitant in their approach. Eight months would follow without the allies engaging in active combat against the Germans– a period referred to as ‘the phoney war’. Back in Poland the country immediately experienced a ruthless partitioning with Germany annexing former Polish territories across the western border, whilst the Soviets took control of Poland's eastern region; the remaining area was to be ruled by the General Government – a German administration led by Nazi Hans Frank.

Poland became the only nation occupied by Hitler in which there was no collaboration between the conquerors and the conquered

Journalist, Max Hastings

Nazi propaganda had portrayed ethnic Germans as having been oppressed by Poles, and using this as a pretext, the city - which had already suffered heavily from the initial invasion - was about to fall victim to a cruel wave of ethnic cleansing. It was October 12th, 1940, when the Nazis decreed the establishment of a ghetto in Warsaw. Surrounded by a 10-foot wall of barbed wire, 200,000 Jews were placed within a 1.3 square mile region – approximately 7 people to a room. Living of a bare 1,125 calories a day starvation, disease and exposure would see 83,000 Jews perish by mid-1942; those deported from the hellish ghetto would find themselves travelling between nightmares, dropped off at the gates of concentration camps. Yet, from this harrowing existence emerged the Polish Underground State – a resistant movement consisting of one Irena Sendler.

At the time of the German invasion, Sendler was a Senior Administrator in the Warsaw Social Welfare Department. Appalled at the conditions in the ghetto, Sendler joined the Council to Aid Jews (Żegota) organised by the Polish underground resistance. As an employee of the Social Welfare Department, Sendler could gain access to the ghetto via special permits from Warsaw's Epidemic Control Department. Upon witnessing the horrors within she and a few dozen sought to remedy the situation. Many Jewish children had been orphaned because of the oppressive reign over the city; if not dead, they were dying with dire need of a way out.

Toolboxes, potato sacks, coffins; these were some of the methods used by the group to smuggle the children out. A Catholic church on the border also provided a rare escape route, alongside numerous underground tunnels. Wearing a star armband as a sign of solidarity with the Jewish people, Sendler directly placed the orphans with non-Jewish families or convents, falsifying documents and forging signatures to give them new identities. As the situation worsened, she found herself urging parents to give over their children for the prospect of a better life outside the ghetto walls, keeping with her a jar with detailed records of the children smuggled. A jar filled to the brim with 2,500 names.

I was brought up to believe that a person must be rescued when drowning, regardless of religion and nationality

Irena Sendler

Sendler’s actions did not go unnoticed and in October 1943 she was arrested and imprisoned by the Gestapo at Pawiak prison. For days she was questioned about the names and whereabouts of children and her co-conspirators. For days she was unbowed. Brutally beaten and tortured (fracturing a leg and foot), secret notes from friends through an underground prison network served as a comfort and motivator. Were it not for the Żegota - who managed to gather enough funds to bribe Nazi officials - a rifle bullet would have surely awaited her. Instead, after being struck several times across the face, the Warsaw liberator was left outside the prison walls to fend for herself.

Forced into hiding, she adopted the name of Klara Dabrowska and lived with her uncle for a time. Continuing to work with Żegota, she would return to Warsaw during its 1944 uprising serving as a nurse at a first-aid post.

With 400 children estimated to have been directly smuggled by Sendler, with her passing in 2008 the world lost a heroic soul: her story is a testament to the strength of the human spirit.