Irena Sendlerowa would bridle at being called a heroine, so let us call her a social activist. She saved 2,500 Jewish children. Not by herself, as she always emphasised. During the war and the time of the occupation, she dreamt of having dry shoes. Her interests were politics, history, and people. She was born on 15th February, 1910 in Warsaw and died there on 12th May, 2008.
In almost every picture of her, she is smiling radiantly. Her hair was blonde, smoothly combed and evenly parted in the middle – she always liked to have a comb and a mirror with her. Her warm, astute gaze is turned directly to the lens, as if she looked people in the eye. Her eyes were blue. They beautifully contrasted with yellow tulips – her favourite flowers. A red variety was actually named after her. She treated her guests with chocolate sweets. When there were no children in sight, she brought out chocolates with cognac. She detested whole wheat bread with beetroot marmalade and it was the only kind she ate during the war. She considered 1st November to be the worst day of the year because of the memory of her dead son. She mourned him until the end of her life, wearing a black headband with her grey hair.
As a child she was taught how to sing by Jerzy Czaplicki, back then only a fifteen-year-old boy who later became a celebrated baritone. She inherited manual skills from her mother and grandmother and made beautiful embroidery. Irena always had her own opinion and she read a lot. She was petite, but adamant, invigorating those around her. Stories about children made her emotional; back then, during the war she cried out of helplessness. She was afraid, but hatred proved to be stronger than fear. She herself had an excellent memory. For many years nobody remembered her.
She lived by two principles (as did her father). The first one: people can be either good or evil. Their race, origin, education, and estate are not important. The second one: you should offer help to anyone in dire straits, even if you are in trouble yourself. When asked about the most important things, she replied without hesitation: ‘Love, tolerance, and humility’. She bore suffering with humility. She received orders with humility. She was a pacifist, nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize twice. When she turned 95, she confessed to Elżbieta Ficowska (one of the people rescued by her): ‘You know, I think I’m getting old.’
‘I was a pampered child’, she often admitted with disarming honesty. Irena Sendlerowa (née Krzyżanowska) was born on 15th February 1910 in Warsaw. Because of her poor health, hre parents decided to move to Otwock. There, her father Stanisław opened a tuberculosis nursing home, never rejecting a plea for help. He contracted typhus fever from his patients and died in 1917. The apple did not fall far from the tree.
She quickly learned to speak Yiddish while playing with her Jewish peers. In high school (in Warsaw) she was a girl scout. Irena was suspended after doing coverage of the May upheaval in 1926. It was not different during her university years. She almost graduated in Polish literature at the University of Warsaw, similar to how her father almost graduated in medicine there. The so-called ghetto benches were implemented at the university and Sendlerowa joined the left side reserved for Jews and not the ‘Aryan side on the right’. Instead of her master thesis she had to write motions for her appeal. After a few years Professor Tadeusz Kotarbiński reinstated her as a student. She defended her thesis in 1939. Unable to find employment as a teacher (because of her political views), she returned to the Social Services Department, where she had worked before.
Irena noted in her memoirs: ‘I always did good in the humanities, but had big shortcomings in maths’. Her later activity, in which she made use of reasoning skills, contradicts that.
From the beginning of the German occupation she led a double life. Officially: employee of Warsaw City Council. Unofficially: a conspirational activist in the Polish Socialist Party, and later on the Żegota Polish Council to Aid Jews as ‘sister Jolanta’. In both organisations she rescued Jews: adults and children alike. This required a well-thought out plan. Sendlerowa proved to be an excellent strategist.
The social services granted help only after conducting a background survey. To receive additional food, clothing, medicine, and money, one had to counterfeit it. This was Irena’s and her liaisons’ job (in the beginning five and later ten people). After that, all that was left to do was to ‘just’ enter the ghetto without raising suspicion, preferably a few times a day. Sendlerowa got passes for herself, the medics, and Irena Schultz. Beyond the wall she wore an armband with the Star of David – a statement of solidarity and a way to blend in. Nevertheless, the makeshift aid did not suffice – even if the Germans did not kill the Jews, hunger did. They had to be led out of the ghetto. Or at least the children. One at a time.
There were a few options available. The first route led through the underground corridors of the courts in Leszno. Anonymous janitors were bribed. But what if the exit on the Aryan side was closed off? The trolley tracks were the second route – Irena could count on the help of a tram driver she’d befriended, Leon Szeszko. The third option was to walk out together with the worker brigades. This is how a little boy named Stefan was rescued – he hid himself under the coat of an adult man. Route number four was the ambulance leaving the ghetto. Infants were carried across in crates and sacks – one of them was Elżbieta Ficowska, today an author of children’s books. A loudly barking dog was bought so as to obscure the crying of babies. There were also boltholes in the walls, the basements and the canals. By making use of the latter, Piotr Zysman (now Zettinger, an engineer) got out. In total, approximately 2,500 Jewish children had to go through a crash course in maturity.
A lesson in parting: there were tears, screams, embraces, refusals to give away the child, and questions. Assurance of success? There was none, not even for getting out of the ghetto.
A lesson in identity: mothers cautioned, ‘Remember, you’re not Icek, but Jacek. Not Rachela, but Roma. And I’m not your mother, I was just your maid. You’ll go with that lady and maybe mommy will wait for you there’.
A lesson in religion: the children learned to say Christian prayers in case of being questioned on the street by a Gestapo officer. When woken up in the middle of the night, they prayed: ‘Our Father in heaven… as we forgive them that trespass against us;...’.
A lesson in adaptation: if they did not know Polish, they had to master it. With a new identity and counterfeit documents, they ended up in care facilities (the youngest children went to monastic ones or to the House of Father Baudouin) and in Polish families. Often they switched them. Sendlerowa was in care of managing the facilities.
The most important lesson: a lesson in love. The children asked, ‘Why did mother give me up?’ Sendlerowa replied, ‘Because she loved you’. In her eyes, the mothers were the heroines.
On a roll of a tissue paper, Sendlerowa wrote down the Polish and Jewish surnames, as well as the place of residence of a rescued child. Then she put the roll in a jar. This is how it went every time. Finally, she passed down the details to Adolf Berman in the form of a list, known as ‘Sendler’s list’ (it is also the title of a reportage written by Magdalena Grochowska and a documentary directed by Michał Dudziewicz).
In 2006 Irena was paid a visit by the German ambassador and his wife, who brought her a big gift basket. When the ambassador’s wife stated: ‘Miss Irenka, what you did was very dangerous!’, Sendlerowa corrected her: ‘You’re mistaken. During the war it was dangerous solely to go out in the streets’.
Irena’s name day was 20th October. She remembered the one from 1943 until her final days. Her older aunt and Janina Grabowska, one of the liaisons, visited her. In the morning, the Gestapo officers came. She planned to throw the rolls with the childrens’ details out of the window, but the house was surrounded. Grabowska hid the roll. Sendlerowa was arrested, interrogated in the edifice located on Szucha alley and then imprisoned in ‘Pawiak’ prison. She had been turned in by the owner of the laundry where Żegota activists had their meetings. ‘Sister Jolanta’ did not betray anybody or disclose any information in spite of being tortured. After many years she confessed ‘I still have mementos of these Übermenschs on my body’. The sentence was given out: execution.
She was saved by somebody as well. After being visited by a dentist, she received a note saying that Żegota was planning a rescue. The act was organised by Julian Grobelny with help from Maria Palester. A Gestapo officer was bribed; he later paid with his life for Irena’s freedom. She never found out how much money her life was worth to this man. She saw her surname on the list of the executed. Now she was the one to receive a new identity.
She hid herself under a different surname and under many addresses. She was not able to attend her mother’s funeral. She continued with her conspirational activity, but instead of an armband with the Star of David she wore a nurse’s hat. During the Warsaw Uprising she applied to the nearest sanitary station, which soon turned into a big hospital. She organised a Christmas play for the youngest patients. In this hospital, she hid Jews as well. She moved the rolls with the surnames from a jar into two bottles and buried them in a garden at 9 Lekarska Street, underneath an old apple tree.
After the war Sendlerowa filled in for the head of the Department of Healthcare, built houses for orphans and the elderly, did family guidance service, and trained civic counsellors. She also served different functions in social organisations, in the Ministry of National Education, and after her compulsory retirement in 1967 (reportedly she ostentatiously expressed her satisfaction in the teacher’s lounge at Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War) she worked in a school library for seventeen more years. She could not part with the youth.
For many children of the Holocaust Sendlerowa was their third mother. That is, if they found out about her. Their second mother was a Polish woman who replaced their first, a Jew. The youngest children did not remember the latter, photos were not always preserved. After many years they had a chance to meet their distant relatives or at least to learn their own history – all thanks to a petite, blue-eyed blonde and her famous list. The children adored Sendlerowa and trusted her. When, just after the war, she was taking care of a little girl from Auschwitz, the child asked her to draw an angel. Anna Mieszkowska, Sendlerowa’s later biographer, called her an ‘angel during a time of destruction’.
Sendlerowa had three children of her own: Janina, who graduated in Polish literature and preserves the memory of her mother; Andrzej, who survived only a dozen days, because he was born prematurely due to Sendlerowa’s continuous interrogations in the Department of Security), and Adam, who died suddenly in 1999 because of heart problems.
During her university years a Gypsy foretold that she would have two husbands, yet she would get married three times. Her first husband was Mieczysław Sendler, the second – Stefan Zgrzembski (originally Adam Celnikier), the father of her children. After the divorce she got involved with Sendler again, but they split up after ten years.
Janina Zgrzembska recollects that her mother was always dedicated to other people, she had many friends from different parts of the world and her name opened all doors in Israel. She was interested in the fate of the rescued, she prided in the fact that this one here is a cherished doctor and the other one is an esteemed professor. She corresponded and met up with them whenever she could. Irena did not speak of war, but of the present day. Ficowska said: ‘whoever came by fell in love with her’. Sendlerowa often thought of Ewa Rechtman, a beloved friend during her university years, one whom she could not help escape the ghetto.
For a long time she had kept silent about what she did during the war. If she spoke or wrote about it in memoirs, which today are considered to be priceless, she did it in a peculiar way. About the Jewish children and their mothers – always full of concern. About the associates – always with admiration (and she meticulously noted all the names). Her own actions were the only thing she described as the most ordinary thing in the world (quickly changing the personal pronoun from ‘me’ into ‘us’ or ‘them’).
But others reminisce about her eagerly, always fondly and with a smile. It is the Order of the Smile, awarded by children, which was the award most important to her, just alongside a letter from the Holy Father John Paul II and the title of the Righteous Among the Nations. Besides, she preferred when a school took her as its patron more than titles, medals and orders (and there were many). The first one to do that was in Germany, in Poland there are dozens of them. A special prize for teachers educating and teaching tolerance was founded in Sendlerowa’s name before her death.
Her life story was adapted in 1999 by female students from Uniontown, Kansas, into a play, Life in a Jar. Professor Norman Conard, coordinator of the project, wrote:
When we were leaving the Warsaw Airport on a rainy day, we had Irena’s face before our eyes. She was waving us goodbye. Tears were rolling down her cheeks. We went to Poland to understand what this heroic woman did and we came back having trouble imagining her bravery, when she entered the ghetto and led out the children.
Irena Sendlerowa died on 12th May, 2008 in Warsaw. She saved thousands of children and always said it was not enough.
Originally written in Polish by Agnieszka Warnke, August 2017, translated by Patryk Grabowski, October 2017.
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