The Children of Ms Sendler

Aleksandra Zawłocka

16 February 2003

Irena Sendler

The society Children of the Holocaust announced an initiative to award Irena Sendlerowa a Nobel Prize.

Two Nobel Prize candidates (Czeslaw Milosz and Wislawa Szmborska) already supported this initiative. The support of the laureates of the peace Nobel Prize (Lech Walesa and Jimmy Carter) is also awaited. Today Ms. Sendler, who lives in Poland, has been almost entirely forgotten, although during the war she managed to save 2,500 Jewish children and has been honored with the medal "Righteous among the Nations of the World".
Irena Sendler's grandfather took part in the January Uprising; her father Stanislaw Krzyzanowski was an activist of the Polish Socialist Party (PPS). Irena studied Polish literature and in 1931 she married her university colleague Mieczyslaw Sendler. She was an activist of the leftist Zwiazek Mlodziezy Demokratycznej (The Union of Democratic Youth); she participated in protests against a "desk ghetto" in lecture halls) and she also joined the PPS. During the war she helped Jews.


In 1942 the liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto had started - people crowded in a small area were transported to Treblinka. Another form of mass extermination was hunger. In September 1942 the writer Zofia Kossak-Szczucka became the head of the provisional Committee to Aid Jews, which used the Konrad Zegota Committee codename. In December 1942 the committee was transformed into the Rada Pomocy Zydom (The Council to Aid Jews) and was financed by the local representatives of the Polish Government in Exile. Irena Sendler became the head of the children's department of Zegota. Irena Sendler and 10 of her message carriers entered the ghetto dressed up as nurses. The Germans, fearing that the typhus epidemic might spread outside the walls of the ghetto, allowed Polish medical institutions to operate within the ghetto. Sendler's group was primarily concerned with finding ways to smuggle out children. Four routes turned out to be best: The first was the ambulance; children were given sleeping pills, put into sacks and taken away from the ghetto as "victims of typhus". The second route made use of the building of the Leszno court, which was right next to wall of the ghetto. The janitors opened the door on the ghetto side and lead the children to the Aryan side. However the szmalcowniks (blackmailers) soon learned about this route and frequently waited for their victims there. Children were smuggled out of the ghetto through cellars of houses on both sides of the ghetto wall connected by secret corridors. The forth method involved the tram depot on the Jewish side. The husband of one of the messengers was a motorman. At 6 am he placed under one of the seats a carton with a child (that was given sleeping pills) and took the child to the Aryan side. Children were also smuggled out through the main gate of the ghetto - in sacks and in garbage cans.


It was easier to escape from the ghetto than to survive on the Aryan side. The saving of one child required the help of at least ten people. Children were first transported to secret units of caring service (pogotowie opiekuncze) and later to a safe place. When it was necessary to escape from an endangered location Irena Sendler led the children to a new address. Many children were taken care of by nuns. Mary's Family sisters saved almost five hundred of them - all of "their" children survived, and the nuns also managed to avoid repressions. The sisters of the Szarytki Convent were less lucky: in 1944 at the Powazki cemetery Germans spilled gasoline and then burned alive eight nuns for hiding Jewish children.


The Gestapo found out about Irena Sendler at the end of 1943 and she was taken to the Pawiak prison. The Germans wanted her to give away the children: their fake names and addresses. Ms. Sendler refuses to talk about the beating, but she mentioned a thick file she had been shown consisting of denunciations and anonyms sent to Gestapo - from strangers and people she knew. After three months at the Pawiak prison she was taken, along with a group of prisoners, to aleja Szucha. When she awaited the execution a German soldier arrived and took her to an "additional interrogation". They went outside and the German shouted in Polish: "run!" The next day she found her name on the list of the executed Poles. Irena Sendler was unable to find out how high was "the fee" and how many Germans had to be bribed. Irena Sendler returned to work under a false identity. After the war she worked for social welfare; she helped create old people's homes, orphanages and an emergency service for children. She was persecuted by the secret police. In 1965 she was awarded the title Righteous among the nations of the world; however she was allowed to travel to Israel to plant her tree in Yad Vashem only in 1983.

Aleksandra Zawłocka, Dzieci Sendlerowej (The Children of Ms. Sendler),
Wprost 7(1055), February 16, 2003, p. 60-63.