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.

Wild Bill Donovan: The Spymaster Who Created the OSS & Modern American Espionage

Author Douglas Waller discusses “Wild” Bill Donovan and his role in the OSS and modern American espionage, the subject of his new book.

Speaker Biography: Douglas Waller, a former veteran correspondent for Newsweek and Time, has reported on the CIA for six years. Waller also covered the Pentagon, the State Department, the White House and Congress. Before reporting for Newsweek and Time, he served eight years as a legislative assistant on the staffs of Rep. Edward Markey and Sen. William Proxmire. He is the author of the best-sellers “The Commandos: The Inside Story of America’s Secret Soldiers,” which chronicled U.S. Special Operations Forces, with a lineage tracing back to the OSS, and “Big Red: The Three-Month Voyage of a Trident Nuclear Submarine.” He is also the author of “A Question of Loyalty: Gen. Billy Mitchell and the Court-Martial that Gripped the Nation,” the critically acclaimed biography of the World War I general.

From the Library of Congress 2011.

The History of the OSS

How the OSS came about and its development into and the Clandestine Service known as the Central Intelligence Agency as told by those who served.

Lonely Courage – the story of the SOE Heroines in Occupied France. A talk by Rick Stroud

Introduction

A talk by Rick Stroud on Wednesday 11 April 2018 in The Kincaid Gallery, The Royal Green Jackets (Rifles) Museum. (see link at bottom of page)

“The French Resistance began almost as soon as France surrendered to Germany.  At first it was small, disorganised groups of men and women working in isolation but by 1944 around 400,000 French citizens (nearly 2% of the population) were involved.  The Special Operations Executive (SOE) set up in 1941 saw its role in France as recruiting and organising guerrilla fighters; supplying and training them; and disrupting the Germans by any means, including sabotage, collection of intelligence and dissemination of black propaganda.

Infiltrated into France and operating in Resistance circuits the basic SOE unit was a team of three: a leader, a wireless operator and a courier, many of them women.  This is the story of those women, their selection, training, dropping into occupied France and their attempts to survive on a daily basis whilst being hunted by the Gestapo.  Some survived by luck through the war, whilst others were captured, tortured and executed before the Nazis final capitulation.

Rick Stroud is a writer and television director who has directed such actors as Pierce Brosnan, John Hurt,and Joanna Lumley.  He is the author of several books including Rifleman, the story of Vic Gregg, ex 2RB.  He is currently working on a book about the kidnapping by the SOE of General Kreipe from his headquarters on Nazi occupied Crete.”(Ricard Shroud April 2018)

Talk by Rick Stroud

Odette Churchill, George Cross, Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur (SOE French Section)

Odette ABC News

A short video interview of Odette  shown on British television in 1980.

Odette speaks about being a prisoner in concentration camps ,  and how she coped with torture and weeks in solitary confinement under horrific conditions. 

(First shown:14/11/1980. If you would like to license a clip from this interview, please e mail: archive@fremantle.com Quote: VT23965)

Hannie Schaft of the Dutch Resistance (The girl with the red hair)

(Unless otherwise stated all photographs are Public domain/common licence)

Hannie Schaft was born in Haarlem northern Holland on 16 September 1920.

After the German occupation of the Netherlands Hannie Schaft started providing stolen and forged identity papers to Jewish families to prevent them being deported to concentration camps. This first act of resistance by 20-year-old Shaft came to the attention of the Council of the Resistance which was a group closely linked to the Communist Party of the Netherlands and they decided to recruit her.

The leadership wanted her to become a courier but Schaft refused and said she wanted to fight the Germans.  

Schaft with Sten Gun

Shortly after completing her firearms and other training a member of the resistance pointed out a senior Gestapo officer and told her to kill him. 

Schaft walked behind the officer then put  her pistol to his head and pulled the trigger but all she heard was a click.  Unbeknown to Schaft the Gestapo officer was a member of the resistance, she had been given an unloaded pistol  and this was a test to ensure she was capable of assassinating members of the occupying forces and collaborators.

The pistol of Hannie Schaft (Haarlems Vertzts Museum)

One of several assassinations took place on 15 March 1945 when Hannie and 16-year-old Truus Oversteegen whose sister was also with the resistance shot dead Ko Langendisk who was a paid German informer.  Truus later said, after the assassination they both hid in a hotel and Hannie put on face powder because she wanted to die pretty.

Sisters (L) Freddie (R) Truus Oversteegen. Former members of the Resistance

Hannie Schaft had distinctive red hair and  after being involved in acts of  sabotage and several assassinations  she was high on the German wanted list and was known as ‘the girl with the red hair’. Aware the Germans had her description and were looking for her Schaft dyed her hair black and continued her resistance work.

Apart from assassinations and sabotage including her part in blowing up a power station near Haarlem she also transported and distributed weapons.

On 25 March 1945 Schaft was arrested at a routine German checkpoint in Haarlem but only after her interrogators noticed the red roots of her hair did the Gestapo suspect she was the woman on their wanted list. It has also been alleged another member of the resistance identified her after they had been tortured.

Three weeks before the end of the war Hannie Schaft was shot but the first bullet did not kill her. It has been widely claimed although seriously injured Schaft said to her executioner, “I shoot better than that”, after which she was killed by a second bullet to the head. 

On 27 November 1945 Hannie was reburied during a state funeral  along with 421 other members of the Dutch resistance who had served with various organisations.

Stamp dated 1962 issued by the DDR (Communist East Germany)

During the Cold War East Germany used Hannie Schaft in their propaganda and printed a postage stamp in her memory and due to increasing tensions between the Soviet Union, the Warsaw Pact and western Europe  the history of the Communist section of the Dutch resistance became politically unpopular. Only after the fall of the Berlin Wall did the communist resisters who fought for the liberation  of the Netherlands once again start to be  recognised for their sacrifices and bravery.  

Further reading and information

Kathryn Atwood, Women Heroes of World War Two

Hannie Schaft foundation   https://hannieschaft.nl/to-all-international-visitors/