Irena Sendler: The Polish Angel
CINCINNATI—Irena Sendlerowa (Sendler), a Catholic who became known as the “Polish Angel,” saved
the lives of about 2,500 Jewish children during the Holocaust. Her motivation grew from a principle
passed down by her father. “When someone is drowning, extend a helping hand,” Sendler recalled.
The Jews were certainly drowning in a sea of blood in German-occupied Poland.
The story of Irena Sendler—who passed away on May 12, 2008—is featured in St. Anthony
Messenger’s August cover article entitled, “Irena Sendler: World War II’s Polish
Angel,” by Richard C. Lukas. After July 21, the article will be posted at: AmericanCatholic.org.
After the Germans defeated Poland in September of 1939, they enslaved people and exterminated civilians
on an unprecedented scale. By 1942, it became clear that the Germans intended to slaughter all Jews.
Sendler, a 29-year-old social worker when the war broke out, worked for Warsaw’s Department of
Social Service. Her department regularly aided poor Jews and Christians in the city.
In December 1942, the Poles established the Council for Aid to Jews, better known by its code name,
Zegota. Sendler, who went by the underground name Jolanta, was a prominent member of the group.
Zegota provided food, clothing, shelter, forged documents and money to thousands of Jews.
Sendler and her associates secured the names and addresses of Jewish children who lived in the ghetto’s
miserable conditions. Zegota used various methods to aid them: One way was to use an ambulance to smuggle
children out. They were hidden in gunnysacks, body bags and even coffins. Babies were often carried
out in toolboxes.
Polish families also cared for the children. Before placing a child in a Polish home, Sendler and
her associates gave the children forged documents which provided them with new Christian identities.
She personally kept an index on strips of tissue paper that identified all of the children rescued
from the ghetto. She recorded the child’s Jewish name, its temporary Christian name and where
the child lived.
Sendler’s altruism, though, caught up with her. On the night of October 23, 1943, the Gestapo
took her to Pawiak, a notorious prison. Beaten, tortured and sentenced to death, she had every reason
to believe that she would be shot or hanged. But, thanks to a well-placed bribe by Zegota officials
to the Gestapo, the Nazis freed her.
In the ensuing decades, Sendler received numerous tributes for her courageous work. When she received
the Jan Karski award for valor and courage in 2003, Pope John Paul II expressed his “hearty congratulations
and respect for your extraordinary brave activities in the years of occupation.” She was also
nominated for the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize by the Polish and Israeli governments.
In 1999, Norman Conard showed four of his high-school students in rural Kansas a magazine clip about
Sendler and encouraged them to work on the story as a project for National History Day. The experience
led Megan Stewart, Elizabeth Cambers, Jessica Shelton and Sabrina Coons to write a play titled Life
in a Jar. The title refers to the hidden index of names Irena Sendler hid in jars. The play has
grown from a local production to performances around the United States and in Europe. It is now available
Conard, who directed his students’ play, believes the loss of Sendler is palpable. “We
have lost a giant of the human race. She represented and still represents the best about our world.
We have lost a family member.”
Permission is granted to reprint this release.
The second article posted will be,
“The Virginia Tech Tragedy: How One Family Copes,”
by Mary Ellen Pellegrini.