She was known as the “Mother of all Jewish children”, the “Saviour” or simply “Irena” by the thousands of children who were pulled out of the Ghetto, hidden or simply smuggled out of Warsaw during the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust.
Her unwavering courage and unshakable determination is a lesson to us all. Irena joined the Council for Aid to Jews (Żegota) in 1942 and became the head of the Children’s Division. She got to work immediately making regular trips to the Warsaw Jewish Ghetto to bring aid to the little ones. Every time she entered the Ghetto, Irena would put on a Star of David armband as a mark of solidarity with the plight of the Jews.
Appalled by what she saw, Irena smuggled as many Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto as she could, knowing full well that this was their only hope of survival. Those were did not die in the Ghetto were shipped out and slaughtered in the Nazi concentration camp of Treblinka. Irena had to endure brutal torture at the hands of the Gestapo when she was caught and imprisoned in 1943. She was sentenced to death but was miraculously saved by Żegota. Rather than become disheartened or frightened by the brutality of the Nazis and her capture, she became a more impassioned activist saving many, many more children.
The deeds of Irena Sendlerowa hit the headlines, so to speak, when a group of school children staged a play called “Life in a Jar” in honour of her work. The title of the play was a reference to the buried glass jar in which Irena kept all the names and details of the children she saved on slips of paper. She was forced to conceal and change the identities of all the Jewish she saved in order for them to survive. Many returned to Irena after the war to trace their roots and, if possible, their families. She was recognised as Righteous Among the Nations by the Yad Vashem in 1965 and nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 (the eventual winner was Al Gore). She was set to be nominated again this year.
Sendlerowa could not be reconciled to the fact that she felt she could have done more to help her children and that she might have saved many, many more. “This pain, this regret,” she recalled, “will haunt me to my dying day”. Irena Sendlerowa was 98 when she died and will be sadly missed by us all.