Irena Sendler

24 Jun 2016

Known as the female Schindler, Irena Sendler - who died in May 2008 at the age of 98 - is credited with having saved the lives of some 2,500 Jewish children in the Warsaw Ghetto during the Second World War. A catholic social worker at the time of the Nazi occupation of Warsaw in 1939, Sendler was an early member of the Zegota, the Polish Council for Aid to Jews, set up to assist the 500,000 Jews rotting in the infamous Warsaw Ghetto. In December 1942, when disease and death in the Ghetto were at their peak, the Zegota put her in charge of its children’s department. Wearing nurses’ uniforms, she and a colleague, Irena Schultz, were sent into the Ghetto with food, clothes and medicine, including a vaccine against typhoid. Such acts were illegal (Poles were forbidden from helping Jews) and the pair faced deportation themselves if caught.

When the Nazis began liquidating the Ghetto shortly afterwards, sending its wretched inhabitants to the death camps at Treblinka and Auschwitz, the Zegota decided to try to save as many children as possible. Using the codename 'Jolanta' and wearing a Star of David armband, Sendler became part of the Ghetto’s escape network. Some children were transported in coffins, suitcases and sacks; others escaped through the sewer system beneath the city. An ambulance driver who smuggled infants beneath the stretchers in the back of his van kept his dog beside him in the front seat, having trained the animal to bark to mask any cries from his hidden passengers.

The children saved by Sendler were given new identities and placed in convents, with sympathetic Polish families, in orphanages and in hospitals. Those who were old enough to talk were taught Christian prayers and how to make the sign of the Cross, so that their Jewish heritage would not be suspected.


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audrey beasley
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