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Unsung Heroes of History: Irena Sendler

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Irena Sendler, born Irena Krzyżanowska in Otwock, Poland, on February 15th, 1910 was an unsung hero and humanitarian during the Nazi occupation of Poland. This sample biographical essay from the writing services at Ultius will discuss how Sendler has been credited with thwarting the Nazis by smuggling over 2,500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw, Poland ghetto and finding them homes with non-Jewish families for their protection. 

Irena Sendler and the rise of Hitler

Adolph Hitler, a staunch anti-Semite, believed that Jews were an inferior race and felt that they should be annihilated from the face of the earth, along with others, in his quest for racial purity and community. Hitler held the Jews responsible for the German defeat in World War I. After the war, Hilter joined the National German Workers’ Party, which later was known as the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, or the Nazis. Hitler was imprisoned for treason, where he wrote a memoir about his political views called Mein Kampf, which described that a war would arise in Europe that would ultimately result in the extermination of all Jews in Germany.

Hitler’s obsession with the elimination of the Jews was boundless, and his belief in the superiority of the German race as unadulterated and pure was inexhaustible. He referred to the racial purity as Aryan which required a concomitant breadth of community for expansion, called Lebensraum. In the period after his release from prison, Hitler garnered power and achieved party status as he rose from obscurity to sheer dominance over his rivals. In 1933, Hitler was named chancellor of the country, and subsequent to the death of then President Paul von Hindenburg, Hitler described himself as Fuhrer and became the supreme ruler of Germany.

Racial purity

Hitler’s commitment to racial purity and expansionism were central to his world view, and became the essence of his foreign and domestic policy.. Jewish persecution was not the first level of Hitler’s plan, in fact, the initial victims of his murderous efforts were his political opponents, like the Social Democrats or the Communist forces. Hitler’s first concentration camp was at Dachau in 1933. The initial internment prisoners were Communists.

Many more killing-ground camps were later created under the auspices of Heinrich Himmler, who was head of the elite Nazi guard, the Waffen SS and later chief of police. During these initial years, there were approximately 525,000 Jews in Germany, which represented just 1 percent of the population. From this point Hitler began the process of purifying Germany by removing non-Aryans from their employment, destroying Jewish businesses and taking over the clients of Jewish doctors and lawyers. The Nuremberg Laws of 1935 dictated that if three or more of your grandparents were Jewish, you were considered a Jew. If you had only two Jewish grandparents, your were considered a half-breed. The laws formed the basis for chronic persecution and stigmatization for those of Jewish heritage. In 1938, during the Kristallnacht, or the “night of broken glass” synagogues were burned, store windows were broken and hundreds of Jews were either killed or arrested. 

Hitler invades Poland

Hitler’s plan to expand his race found him occupying the western portion of Poland, by 1939. Thousands of Polish Jews were forced to leave their homes and give their property to Germans of the Third Reich, remaining ethnic Germans or Polish gentiles. Jewish ghettoes were enclosed by barbed wire and high walls, where the population was captive and governed by Jewish Councils. The residents were often unemployed, impoverished, and starved, while diseases like typhus found optimal breeding grounds..

Institutionalized individuals suffering from mental illness and other disabilities were gassed to death in Hitler’s Euthanasia Program. By 1945, although ended in 1941, over 275,000 jews had been killed. Many viewed this process as the foundational pilot program for the Holocaust. Commander Hermann Goering sent a memorandum to Reinhard Heydrich, chief of security, in which he stated that they needed to address, what was referred to as “the final solution . . . [to] . . . the Jewish question” once and for all.

The process began where Jews from across the continent living in German occupied countries, like the Netherlands, France, Denmark, Belgium, Norway and Luxembourg, and even German allied countries, were transported to the Polish ghettoes. The most intense of the deportations occurred in 1942. At that time, it is estimated that over 300,000 Jews were deported from the ghetto in Warsaw alone. The Germans tried to secrete the existence of the concentration camps and the ongoing atrocities that were taking place, but with this level and kind of persecution, keeping the information under wraps was too much of a challenge. Jews in occupied territories were marked with a yellow star, targeting them for abuse, persecution or death. Mass killing experiments were conducted at the concentration camps of Auschwitz, near Krakow. The initial mass gassings started at Belzec, Poland, near Lublin, in 1942. Additional mass killing camps were created at Treblinka, Majdanek, Chelmno and Sobibor. Auschwitz-Birkenau was the largest with over 2 million people massacred.

Eyewitnesses brought back news of the atrocities inflicted on the Jewish people to the Allied command, but they were both too consumed with conquering the enemy and found the heinous reports of Germany having a massive military policy to transport and gas innocent people, too incomprehensible to fathom. 

Irena Sendler’s underground operation

Irena Sendler was a senior administrator in the Warsaw Social Welfare Department. The Department operated canteens across the city of Warsaw. The canteens offered food, money and services for the most vulnerable. Irena instituted the provision of clothing, drugs and financial assistance to the Jews. In an additional attempt to circumvent the attention of the Germans, Jewish families were registered under fabricated Christian names. Further, the families were said to have highly infectious diseases, like tuberculosis and typhus, in an effort to deter German inspection.

As the Warsaw Ghetto grew in size, Sendler became more and more appalled by the conditions and the circumstances, so she joined the Zegota, the Council for Aid to Jews. The Zegota was created by the Polish underground resistance movement, and as one of its first members, Sendler led the charge to rescue Jewish children. In her effort to secure entry into the Ghetto, she obtained a pass from the Warsaw Epidemic Control Department that allowed her to enter the area on a daily basis where she brought items to aid the victims. While there, she tried to find parents who were willing to let their children go, in an attempt to find possible security for them in a new locale, with the ever present awareness that they might not ever see their children again. It was not an easy task to accomplish.

Sendler heroically saves the children.

Irena began the process of smuggling the children out of the Ghetto in an ambulance. With the help of one person from each of the ten Warsaw Social Welfare Departments, she was able to create false documents and forged signatures. Over time, children were taken away from their parents in gunnysacks or body bags. In some cases, the children were placed inside packed loads of goods. One mechanic secreted a baby in a tool box. Nothing that offered a possible hiding place was ignored, some children left in coffins, while other left in potato sacks.

An old Ghetto church had an entrance on the Warsaw side and an entrance on the Aryan side, so some of the youth entered the church as Jewish children, but exited the church as Christians. A question that she was asked regularly by the parents was, “can you guarantee they will live”? All she could say was that the only guarantee she could give was that if they stayed behind, they would die. She lived for years with the deafening sound of the children screaming for their parents as they left. 

The church was a major player in her efforts to secure the lives of the children, and Sendler said that she also had amazing cooperation when she asked to place some of the children in people’s homes. She was able to find non-Jewish families willing to adopt the children. In all, Irena stowed the children in convents, orphanages, and family homes. In a stroke of genius and compassion, Sendler kept careful record of the children’s family names and their new identities. So that no one could find the notes, she buried the information under an apple tree in the yard of a neighbor located across from the German barracks. It was her hope that some time in the future, she would be able to dig up the jars, find the children and make them aware of their pasts. Irena Sendler’s jar contained the names of 2,500 children in all.

Sendler discovered by Nazis

In the end, the Germans did find out about Irena. Her German interrogator spoke perfect Polish and asked her questions about who was involved. He requested information about the top Zegota leaders, where they lived and the names of others involved. Irena recited the narrative that she and her cohorts had agreed upon in the event of capture. The interrogator provided her with a list of informants who had told on her, and she was sentenced to death by firing squad.

In the meantime, the Zegota was able to bribe her executioner who aided in her escape. The Germans went around proclaiming that Irena had been killed, and even mounted posters advising that she had been shot. One such poster Irena even read herself. Irena hid and lived a life similar to that of the children she rescued. When the war ended, Irena went back to dig up the jars, and tried to locate the children and find living parents. The majority of the parents whose children Irena saved, died in the Treblinka death camp.

Although Irena’s work in rescuing the children was legendary, she is still considered an unsung hero. In 1999, three Kansas students, Megan Stewart, Elizabeth Cambers and Sabrina Coons, accepted their teacher’s challenge to research and participate in a year-long challenge by entering the National History Day program. The students created a play based on Irena’s life story which they named "Life in a Jar".

The production was a raving success, and has been staged both in the U. S. and abroad hundreds of times. The international component helped to publicize Sendler and made her an global heroine. Sendler, the students and teacher received an award from B’nai Jehudah Temple of Kansas City, Sendler for her efforts, and the students and teacher for their contributions on sheding light on such an important, all but forgotten topic. The play was later adapted for film. Sendler was portrayed by actress Anna Paquin in "The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler".

Sendler received a letter from Pope John Paul II, himself from Poland, sending her praise for her actions in wartime. In addition, Sendler received the Order of the White Eagle, one of Poland’s highest honors given to civilians, and she received the Jan Karski Award for Courage and Heart, given by the American Center of Polish Culture, located in Washington, D. C. Irena died on May 12, 2008 in Warsaw, Poland.

Works Cited

Baczynska, Gabriela. "Sendler, saviour of Warsaw Ghetto children, dies." Reuters. Thomson Reuters. 12 May 2008. Web. 11 June 2016. 

"Facts About Irena." Life in a Jar: The Irena Sendler Project. n. d. Web. 11 June 2016. 

Harding, Louette. "Irena Sendler: a Holocaust heroine." Mail Online. Associated Newspapers Ltd. 1 August 2008.  Web. 11 June 2016. 

"Irena Sendler 1." The Holocaust: Crimes, Heros and Villains. n. d. Web. 11 June 2016. 

"Irena Sendler 2." The Jewish Virtual Library. American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise. n. d. Web. 11 June 2016.

"Rethinking the Polish Underground." Yeshiva University: YU News. YU News. 25 July 2015. Web. 11 June 2016. 

"The Holocaust." History.com. A&E Television Networks, LLC. n. d. Web. 11 June 2016.  



Ultius, Inc. "Unsung Heroes of History: Irena Sendler." Ultius | Custom Writing and Editing Services. Ultius Blog, 01 Jan. 2017. https://www.ultius.com/ultius-blog/entry/unsung-heroes-of-history-irena-sendler.html

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Ultius, Inc. "Unsung Heroes of History: Irena Sendler." Ultius | Custom Writing and Editing Services. January 01, 2017 https://www.ultius.com/ultius-blog/entry/unsung-heroes-of-history-irena-sendler.html.

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Ultius, Inc. "Unsung Heroes of History: Irena Sendler." Ultius | Custom Writing and Editing Services. January 01, 2017 https://www.ultius.com/ultius-blog/entry/unsung-heroes-of-history-irena-sendler.html.

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