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A guest post by Laurie Rappeport
Irena Sendler has been called the female Oskar Schindler, evoking the story of the German factory owner who saved over one thousand Jews during the Second World War. Sendler, however, is credited with saving almost 3000 people, most of whom were children.
When the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939 Sendler began to help Jews escape from the Nazi dragnet. It is estimated that during those first months she helped as many as 500 Jews evade the Nazis and go into hiding. Sendler then joined the Zagota, a Polish underground which was devoted to helping Jewish children. She obtained false papers that identified her as a nurse and allowed her to enter the Warsaw ghetto where she brought food and medicines.
Sendler quickly identified ways in which she could smuggle children out of the ghetto and she began to do so, often drugging the children as she hid them in suitcases, toolboxes and coffins to bring them out. One ruse involved placing a sedated child in a bag with a barking dog on top of the sack. Many of the children had been orphaned in the ghetto and had no parents or guardians but Sendler also approached ghetto parents to convince them to allow her to remove their children and give them a chance of survival. As Sendler later described it, “I talked the mothers out of their children.”
In addition to the children she personally smuggled out of the ghetto, Sendler also worked with her comrades in the Zagota to remove children through underground passages, sewer pipes and via the abandoned courthouse on the ghetto’s edge. All in all it is estimated that Sendler was responsible for taking 2500 children out of the ghetto.
Sendler identified safe hiding places where the smuggled children could be placed. Most children were placed in convents, Catholic orphanages or with Polish families. Sendler recorded the children’s names and hiding places on strips of tissue paper which she then enclosed in jars and buried in her friend’s garden. She hoped that after the war, she would be able to reunite the children with their families or, if not, at least with the Jewish community.
In 1943 Sendler was picked up by the Gestapo and imprisoned. The Nazis tortured her and broke her feet but she did not reveal anything about “her children”. Zagota comrades succeeded in bribing a prison guard to release Sendler and she spent the rest of the war in hiding.
After the war Sendler dug up her jars and tried to facilitate reunifications between the children and surviving family members but in almost all cases, no family members were left and the children were either adopted into their Polish families or sent to Israel.
The Irena Sendler story was uncovered in 1999 by a group of schoolgirls who with the help of a Jewish businessman turned it into a play that is, today, performed throughout the world. In addition the story has been retold in book form and appears on a project website.