The Warsaw Ghetto was a 16 block area surrounded by seven foot walls where 500,000 Polish Jews were herded into to await certain death. As a health worker approved to enter the ghetto, Irena sneaked children out between 1942 and 1943 to safe hiding places, finding non-Jewish families to adopt and care for them.
Being appalled by the conditions, she joined the underground Zegota, becoming the head of the children’s bureau. At the time, Irena was a Senior Administrator in the Warsaw, Social Welfare Department, and managed to be issued a pass to legally enter the Ghetto; doing so daily, bringing food, medicines and clothing…5,000 people were dying per month from starvation and disease, where she decided to help the Jewish children get out.
Children were taken out in gunnysacks, body bags and potato sacks; a mechanic took a baby out in his toolbox. Some were carried out in coffins, their mouth taped, or they were sedated so they wouldn’t cry. An ambulance driver accompanied by a dog took some children through the gates where they hid under the floorboard—the barking dog drowning out the children’s cries. They were given false identities and placed in homes and orphanages; and Irena wrote down in coded form, the children’s original names and their new identities, keeping them in jars buried beneath an apple tree in a neighbor’s back yard, hoping one day she could dig them up and locate the children informing them of their past and true identities. The children only knew her by her code name, Jolanta; single handedly smuggling out 400 of them.
On October 20, 1943, the Nazis arrested Irena. She withstood torture of having both her legs and feet broken, never betraying the children or her associates. Sentenced to death, she was saved at the last minute by Zegota members who bribed a German soldier to halt the execution.
Reflecting on her experiences, Irena said, “Here I am, a stranger, asking them to place their child in my care. They ask if I can guarantee their safety, I have to answer, ‘No.’ Sometimes they would give me their child, other times they would say come back. I would come back a few days later and the family had already been deported.”
After the Polish Senate finally honored her Herculean heroism, she sent them a letter, writing, “Every child saved with my help and the help of all the wonderful secret messengers, who today are no longer living, is the justification of my existence on this Earth, and not a title to glory.” Irena Sendler died on May 12, 2008. She was 98.
Below is an actual video of Irena Sendler describing her experience.