One of thousands of forgotten heroes who rescued Jews from the Holocaust

Irena Sendler
Irena Sendler

One of thousands of forgotten heroes who rescued Jews from the Holocaust

In the introduction to last week’s Holocaust Memorial Day account on this page about the fleet of Danish boats that carried thousands of Jews to Sweden during WWII, I mentioned the little-recounted heroism of Irena Sendler.

Irena, a Roman Catholic social worker who died in Poland in May 2008 aged 98, saved the lives of around 2,500 Jewish children while Hitler was unleashing his merciless cruelty on the Warsaw ghetto.

Some News Letter readers responded with gratitude that lesser-told WWII rescue missions were marked on this page.

Most folk know of Oskar Schindler’s list of Jews saved from certain death in Auschwitz, and of Sir Nicholas Winton’s Jewish ‘kindertransport’ trains, but there were many, many thousands of rescuers and liberators like Irena Sendler whose stories of great heroism are rarely acknowledged.

One News Letter reader summed up all the other readers’ comments very succinctly - “I never heard of the heroic efforts of Irene Sendler and her team leading an exodus of Jewish children out of the Warsaw ghetto at great risk to

themselves. The Danish ‘little Dunkirk’, when most of the Jews in Denmark were ferried across the sea to Sweden, is also news to me.”

The whole world remembered the Holocaust during last week’s annual Memorial Day, and with the dark shadows of Hitler’s genocide still lingering in our thoughts, there’s a little more here today about Irena Sendler.

By 1942 the Germans had herded half a million Polish Jews into the Warsaw ghetto, a walled-in area of about one square kilometre, where they helplessly awaited transportation to the extermination camps.

They experienced starvation, disease, exposure to the elements and constant cruelty from their captors.

Polish social worker Irena Sendler (or Sendlerowa) had links with Zegota (the Council for Aid to Jews) and in December 1942 she was given charged of Zegota children’s unit.

Wearing nurses’ uniforms, she and a colleague with the same Christian name, Irena Schultz, went into the ghetto with food, clothes and medicine.

Sendler and Schultz soon realised that many of the Jews were destined for the Treblinka death camp about 60 miles away.

Using the codename ‘Jolanta’ and wearing a Star of David armband to identify with the Jews, Irena, Schultz and about a dozen sympathetic collaborators, smuggled out 2,500 Jewish children.

Such heroism is hard to imagine - Warsaw was bedecked with German posters that warned of certain death for anyone who aided the Jews.

The wording on the posters was fearfully blunt - “Capital punishment for support to Jews.”

Irena smuggled out a little Jewish baby in a mechanic’s toolbox.

Other children were carried out in coffins, suitcases, boxes and sacks.

She led frightened Jewish youngsters to safety through Warsaw’s putrid sewer system.

She hid children in garbage trucks, or under stretchers in an old ambulance.

The ambulance driver brought his dog on her rescue missions - trained to bark loudly above the whimpers and cries of the terrified infants!

The parents of the children that she rescued were heartbroken to leave their little-ones in her care.

Author Marcia Vaughan vividly recounted a heart-wrenching scene in her book about Irena. Elka Wolman’s mother and father couldn’t bear to hand their daughter over to Irena, a complete stranger to them.

“Is it better for Elka to suffer and starve behind these walls?” Irena asked. “And what will happen when the soldiers come to send you to the camp at Treblinka?”

“The Nazis say no harm will come to us there,” Mr Wolman argued.

“That’s a lie,” Irena told him. “The people who go there are killed.”

Mrs Wolman’s face was wet with tears. “If we give you our daughter, can you promise us she’ll live?”

“No,” Irena said. “But if she stays here she will surely die.”

“How will we get back together when the war is over?” Mr Wolman asked.

“I’ll keep your child’s real name and new identity on a secret list so you can find her,” Irena promised the worried parents. Suddenly the door downstairs burst open, and the sound of soldiers’ boots pounding on the front steps echoed upstairs.

“They’re coming!” Mrs Wolman cried. “Take her!”

The Wolmans quickly kissed Elka good-bye.

The child cried out as Irena took Elka from her mother’s arms and hurried away through the hall and down the back stairway.

Irena took little Elka to safety, and she kept her promise to record the true names and false identities of the children she helped on slips of paper buried in jars under an apple tree in the backyard of a friend’s garden.

Her rescued children were given over to foster parents, orphanages, or hidden away by sympathetic locals.

When she was found out on October 20, 1943 the Nazis took Irena to the Pawiak prison, where she was severely tortured.

Though her legs and feet were broken by her captors (her body was left permanently scarred) she refused to betray her network of helpers or the children she’d saved.

She was sentenced to death but escaped thanks a member of Zegota who bribed her German guard.

She immediately returned to her rescue work using a new identity.

Irena retrieved her list of names in jars under an apple tree and after the war attempted to keep her promise to reunite the children with their families.

But virtually all of their parents had been gassed at Treblinka.