If you’ve ever set foot in Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem, you’ve been moved by some of the most tragic stories in human history. Here, the millions of Jewish lives lost in the horrors of the Holocaust are honored with great dignity; and their memory lives on with the stories told within these walls.
Even in the shadow of devastating genocide, hope springs eternal at Yad Vashem. If you find yourself at the museum, take some time to walk through the Garden of the Righteous, which commemorates the Righteous Among the Nations—Gentiles who risked their lives to save Jewish people from the Holocaust.
You might recognize a few of the heroes remembered there. And you may have heard the name or seen the face of a Polish social worker, but you might not know how she saved thousands of Jewish children from death at the hands of the Nazis. This is the story of Irena Sendler, a Gentile who was truly righteous among the nations.
Sneaking In, Smuggling Out
A native of Warsaw, Poland, Sendler was a dedicated social worker early in her career. When World War II began, the 29-year-old Sendler worked for the Welfare Department of Warsaw. After Germany forced 400,000 Jewish people into a 1.3-square-mile ghetto in Warsaw in October 1940, Sendler turned her full focus to helping the needy, persecuted Jewish people trapped in the ghetto.
As a central activist in the newly created Council for Aid to Jews (Żegota), Sendler took care of the Jewish people seeking shelter and medical care. She quickly was appointed head of Żegota’s Children’s Bureau and began to rescue Jewish refugees by clever means.
Using her position as a social worker, Sendler shrewdly obtained a permit with the cover story of a worker coming to inspect the sanitary conditions. She then smuggled food, clothing, and medicine into the ghetto to provide relief to those inside while simultaneously smuggling Jewish children out. She entered the ghetto day by day for 18 months and always left with a child in her protection.
She entered the ghetto day by day for 18 months and always left with a child in her protection.
Her methods of extraction included leading children through underground passages; concealing them in potato sacks, garbage bags, or coffins; and sending them in and out of a church, city court, and the cellars of houses that bordered the edge of the ghetto. When escorting sick children out of the ghetto by ambulance, she hid other children within the vehicle. She kept a dog with her, which would bark when her vehicle approached the Nazis, drowning out the children’s noises to help them avoid detection.
Once the children escaped the ghetto, Sendler hid them in orphanages, schools, hospitals, convents, and homes. She set the children up with new identities while using a code to list their real names and placements to help their relatives find and reunite with them.
Sentenced to Death
But Sendler could not outrun the deadly Gestapo (the German secret state police) forever, as they arrested her in October 1943 after discovering her actions. Moments before her arrest, thinking quickly, she had tossed a package containing the list of the identities of the Jewish children she saved out the window to a waiting friend, who kept the list out of enemy hands.
The Nazis brutally tortured her, permanently crippling her by breaking her legs and feet; yet she bravely protected the Jewish refugees’ identities, refusing to divulge any information about them or their whereabouts. So the Gestapo sentenced her to death. But Żegota members bribed a Gestapo agent, securing her escape in February 1944.
A Legacy of Heroism
Despite her brush with death and the danger of returning to Żegota, she committed to continuing her relief work. She went to work as a nurse and assumed a new identity as Klara Dąbrowska. The German authorities watched her closely, but she secretly continued to save children with Żegota.
By the time the Allies liberated Warsaw in January 1945, Żegota was credited with saving more than 2,500 Jewish children, thanks largely to Sendler’s sacrificial efforts. She continued her efforts by working to locate and reunite the children she saved with their surviving family members. She arranged for those left without family, the majority of the children, to be adopted or placed in foster homes.
“Every child saved with my help is the justification of my existence on this earth, and not a title to glory.”
We recognize Sendler as a hero, yet her humility would not allow her to see herself that way. “I could have done more,” she once said. “This regret will follow me to my death. Every child saved with my help is the justification of my existence on this earth, and not a title to glory.”
Yad Vashem awarded Sendler with the Righteous Among the Nations medal and designation in 1965 for her heroic efforts in saving thousands of children. She passed away in 2008 at the age of 98.
Sendler’s story isn’t often told, but it should be. Her phenomenal courage and perseverance in saving lives from death while risking her own speaks to us as a memorial of her efforts and an inspiration for us today. Though we may not be in a position to save lives from a warzone, we are called to stand with and love the Jewish people wherever we are and however we can now.
If you ever see Sendler’s name listed in the Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations on a visit to Yad Vashem, you’ll now know why she is remembered as a Gentile hero in the eyes of the Jewish people.