Irena Sendler: Rescuing Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto

Irena Sendler

Irena Stanislawa Sendler was a Catholic nurse and a prominent member of a Polish resistance network dedicated to rescuing Jews after German forces occupied Poland in 1939.

Although the punishment for helping Jews was the death penalty this did not deter Irena and members of her network from providing Jewish families with food, new identity papers with Christian names and helping them relocate to areas where they were unknown by the German authorities, but the greatest dangers she faced was during her work inside the notorious Warsaw Ghetto.

Thought to have been taken in the Warsaw Ghetto

After becoming aware the German authorities were concerned typhoid might spread beyond the ghetto Irena used her official papers identifying her as a nurse to frequently enter the ghetto to check for typhoid and other infectious diseases. After obtaining permission from parents she used many innovative methods to rescue children including escaping through sewer pipes and putting young children inside suitcases which were on trollies. It is believed Irena Stanislawa was personally responsible for rescuing around 400 children.   

Once the children reached safety they were given Christian names which were supported by identity papers and were housed with adopted families who agreed to trace their parents after the war, but it was later discovered few parents survived the concentration camps.

On 18 October 1943 Irena was arrested by the Gestapo; over a period of several days she was tortured but refused to provide useful information, Irena was then transferred to Pawiaki Prison where the torture continued. After the Gestapo found they could not break her, and it became clear their prisoner was prepared to die rather than betray the children or members of her network Irena was sentence to death.  

There is scant information regarding her escape, however, it is known before she was due to be executed a member of her network bribed her guards and because the Gestapo later displayed posters in public places announcing her execution as a deterrent against assisting Jews suggests her escape was well planned.  

After hiding for several weeks Irena was provided with new identity papers in the name of Irena Sendlerowa and then continued her escape work under a new cover story.

Irena Sendler 2005

It is believed her underground network rescued around 2,500 children but the number of Jewish families saved by Irena and other members of her network is unknown.  

On 12 May 2008 Irena Sendler died in Warsaw and few were aware of her wartime connection with the Polish Resistance.

Author: Alan Malcher

Military historian and defence commentator

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