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IRENA SENDLEROWA - 1910 - 2008
Irena Sendler, 98; member of resistance saved
lives of 2,500 Polish Jews
By Elaine Woo, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer May 12, 2008
Fate may have led Irena Sendler to the moment almost 70 years ago when she began to risk
her life for the children of strangers. But for this humble Polish Catholic social worker,
who was barely 30 when one of history's most nightmarish chapters unfolded before her,
the pivotal influence was something her parents had drummed into her. {What words does
the author use to describe the time period in Europe during the Holocaust?}
"I was taught that if you see a person drowning," she said, "you must jump into the water to
save them, whether you can swim or not." · Irena Sendler {What does this reveal about
Irena Sendler and what type of person she was raised to be?}
When the Nazis occupying Poland began rounding up Jews in 1940 and sending them to
the Warsaw ghetto, Sendler plunged in. With daring and ingenuity, she saved the lives of
more than 2,500 Jews, most of them children, a feat that went largely unrecognized until
the last years of her life.
Sendler, 98, who died of pneumonia Monday in Warsaw, has been called the female Oskar
Schindler, but she saved twice as many lives as the German industrialist, who sheltered
1,200 of his Jewish workers. Unlike Schindler, whose story received international attention
in the 1993 movie "Schindler's List," Sendler and her heroic actions were almost lost to
history until four Kansas schoolgirls wrote a play about her nine years ago. {Who is the
author referring to when she states “Schindler”? Make an inference– why would the
author use Schindler as a contrast to Irena Sendler? }
The lesson Sendler taught them was that "one person can make a difference," Megan Felt,
one of the authors of the play, said Monday. "Irena wasn't even 5 feet tall, but she walked
into the Warsaw ghetto daily and faced certain death if she was caught. Her strength and
courage showed us we can stand up for what we believe in, as well," said Felt, who is now
23 and helps raise funds for aging Holocaust rescuers.
Sendler was born Feb. 15, 1910, in Otwock, a small town southeast of Warsaw. She was an
only child of parents who devoted much of their energies to helping workers. She was
especially influenced by her father, a doctor who defied anti-Semites by treating sick Jews
during outbreaks of typhoid fever. He died of the disease when Sendler was 9. {“Does
anyone know what an “anti-Semite” could be defined as?”}
She studied at Warsaw University and was a social worker in Warsaw when the German
occupation of Poland began in 1939. In 1940, after the Nazis herded Jews into the ghetto
and built a wall separating it from the rest of the city, disease, especially typhoid, ran
rampant. Social workers were not allowed inside the ghetto, but Sendler, imagining "the
horror of life behind the walls," obtained fake identification and passed herself off as a
nurse, allowed to bring in food, clothes and medicine. {What does her desire to obtain a
fake identification reveal about her character?}
By 1942, when the deadly intentions of the Nazis had become clear, Sendler joined a Polish
underground organization, Zegota. She recruited 10 close friends -- a group that would
eventually grow to 25, all but one of them women -- and began rescuing Jewish children.
She and her friends smuggled the children out in boxes, suitcases, sacks and coffins,
sedating babies to quiet their cries. Some were spirited away through a network of
basements and secret passages. Operations were timed to the second. {Reflect, would you
be willing to do this for someone you don’t know?}
One of Sendler's children told of waiting by a gate in darkness as a German soldier
patrolled nearby. When the soldier passed, the boy counted to 30, then made a mad dash to
the middle of the street, where a manhole cover opened and he was taken down into the
sewers and eventually to safety. Decades later, Sendler was still haunted by the parents'
pleas, particularly of those who ultimately could not bear to be apart from their children.
"The one question every parent asked me was 'Can you guarantee they will live?' We had
to admit honestly that we could not, as we did not even know if we would succeed in
leaving the ghetto that day. The only guarantee," she said, "was that the children would
most likely die if they stayed." Most of the children who left with Sendler's group were
taken into Roman Catholic convents, orphanages and homes and given non-Jewish aliases.
Sendler recorded their true names on thin rolls of paper in the hope that she could reunite
them with their families later. She preserved the precious scraps in jars and buried them in
a friend's garden. In 1943, she was captured by the Nazis and tortured but refused to tell her
captors who her co-conspirators were or where the bottles were buried. {Based on Irena’s
words to the children’s parents, why would these parents want to risk their children’s
lives in escaping?}
She also resisted in other ways. According to Felt, when Sendler worked in the prison
laundry, she and her co-workers made holes in the German soldiers' underwear. When the
officers discovered what they had done, they lined up all the women and shot every other
one. It was just one of many close calls for Sendler. During one particularly brutal torture
session, her captors broke her feet and legs, and she passed out. When she awoke, a
Gestapo officer told her he had accepted a bribe from her comrades in the resistance to help
her escape. The officer added her name to a list of executed prisoners. Sendler went into
hiding but continued her rescue efforts. {What do Sendler’s actions reveal about her
perception of the German soldiers?}
Felt said that Sendler had begun her rescue operation before she joined the organized
resistance and helped a number of adults escape, including the man she later married. "We
think she saved about 500 people before she joined Zegota," Felt said, which would mean
that Sendler ultimately helped rescue about 3,000 Polish Jews.
When the war ended, Sendler unearthed the jars and began trying to return the children to
their families. For the vast majority, there was no family left. Many of the children were
adopted by Polish families; others were sent to Israel . In 1965, she was recognized by Yad
Vashem , Israel 's Holocaust authority, as a Righteous Gentile, an honor given to nonJews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Nazi reign. In her own country,
however, she was unsung.
Her status began to change in 2000, when Felt and her classmates learned that the woman
who had inspired them was still alive. Through the sponsorship of a local Jewish
organization, they traveled to Warsaw in 2001 to meet Sendler, who helped the students
improve and expand the play. Called "Life in a Jar," it has been performed more than 250
times in the United States, Canada and Poland and generated media attention that cast a
spotlight on the wizened, round-faced nonagenarian. After each performance, Felt and the
other cast members passed a jar for Sendler, raising enough money to move her into a
Catholic nursing home with round-the-clock care. They and the teacher who assigned them
the play project, Norman Conard, started the Life in a Jar Foundation, which has raised
more than $70,000 to help pay for medical and other needs of Holocaust rescuers.
Last year (2007), Sendler was honored by the Polish Senate and nominated for the Nobel
Peace Prize, which brought dozens of reporters to her door. She told one of them she was
wearying of the attention. "Every child saved with my help is the justification of my
existence on this Earth," she said, "and not a title to glory." Sendler, who was the last
living member of her group of rescuers, is survived by a daughter and a granddaughter.
{What does Irena mean when she states that “every child saved with my help is the
JUSTIFICATION of my existence on Earth”? Why would she say it “justifies” her
Justify = prove something is right – validate. Irena Sendler means to say that
saving the children “justified” her existence on Earth. It made her life worth
living. She feels that saving the children’s lives made her life meaningful. She
states that the children shouldn’t be a “title of glory,” but instead, give her life
The Holocaust - the systematic annihilation of six million Jews - is a history of enduring
horror and sorrow. The charred skeletons, the diabolic experiments, the death camps, the
mass graves, the smoke from the chimneys ... In 1933 nine million Jews lived in the 21
countries of Europe that would be occupied by Germany during the war. By 1945 two out
of every three European Jews had been killed by the Nazis. 1.5 million children were
murdered. This figure includes more than 1.2 million Jewish children, tens of thousands of
Gypsy children and thousands of handicapped children.
For many years Irena Sendler - white-haired, gentle and courageous - was living a modest
existence in her Warsaw apartment. This unsung heroine passed away on Monday May
12th, 2008.
Irena Sendler was born in 1910 in Otwock, a town some 15 miles southeast of Warsaw.
She was greatly influenced by her father who was one of the first Polish Socialists. As a
doctor his patients were mostly poor Jews. In 1939, Germany invaded Poland, and the
brutality of the Nazis accelerated with murder, violence and terror. At the time, Irena was a
Senior Administrator in the Warsaw Social Welfare Department, which operated the
canteens in every district of the city. Previously, the canteens provided meals, financial aid,
and other services for orphans, the elderly, the poor and the destitute. Now, through Irena,
the canteens also provided clothing, medicine and money for the Jews. They were
registered under fictitious Christian names, and to prevent inspections, the Jewish families
were reported as being afflicted with such highly infectious diseases as typhus and
But in 1942, the Nazis herded hundreds of thousands of Jews into a 16-block area that
came to be known as the Warsaw Ghetto. The Ghetto was sealed and the Jewish families
ended up behind its walls, only to await certain death. Irena Sendler was so appalled by the
conditions that she joined Zegota, the Council for Aid to Jews, organized by the Polish
underground resistance movement, as one of its first recruits and directed the efforts to
rescue Jewish children.
To be able to enter the Ghetto legally, Irena managed to be issued a pass from
Warsaws Epidemic Control Department and she visited the Ghetto daily, reestablished
contacts and brought food, medicines and clothing. But 5,000 people were dying a month
from starvation and disease in the Ghetto, and she decided to help the Jewish children to
get out. For Irena Sendler, a young mother herself, persuading parents to part with their
children was in itself a horrendous task. Finding families willing to shelter the children, and
thereby willing to risk their life if the Nazis ever found out, was also not easy.
Irena Sendler, who wore a star armband as a sign of her solidarity to Jews, began
smuggling children out in an ambulance. She recruited at least one person from each of the
ten centers of the Social Welfare Department. With their help, she issued hundreds of false
documents with forged signatures. Irena Sendler successfully smuggled almost 2,500
Jewish children to safety and gave them temporary new identities.
Some children were taken out in gunnysacks or body bags. Some were buried inside loads
of goods. A mechanic took a baby out in his toolbox. Some kids were carried out in potato
sacks, others were placed in coffins, some entered a church in the Ghetto which had two
entrances. One entrance opened into the Ghetto, the other opened into the Aryan side of
Warsaw. They entered the church as Jews and exited as Christians. "`Can you guarantee
they will live?'" Irena later recalled the distraught parents asking. But she could only
guarantee they would die if they stayed. "In my dreams," she said, "I still hear the cries
when they left their parents." The children had known her only by her code name Jolanta.
On October 20, 1943 she was arrested, imprisoned and tortured by the Gestapo, who broke
her feet and legs. She ended up in the Pawiak Prison, [and though she was] sentenced to
death, Irena was saved at the last minute when Zegota members bribed one of the Gestapo
agents to halt the execution. She escaped from prison but for the rest of the war she was
pursued by the Nazis.
Citation: "Irena Sendler." Irena Sendler. Web. 4 Dec. 2014.
“Social workers were not allowed
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inside the ghetto, but Sendler,
Sendler knew the “horror of life” in
imagining "the horror of life behind
the ghetto and yet she still “obtained”
the walls," obtained fake
a fake nurse’s identification card in
identification and passed herself off as order to enter this dangerous place.
a nurse, allowed to bring in food,
Her desire to obtain a fake
clothes and medicine.” (Passage 1 Para. 7) identification card and enter the ghetto
independently, without the support of
others, only emphasizes her heroic
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