Irena Sendler

Discover the story of the Polish 'Righteous Among the Nations'

By POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews

Irena Sendler (2007) by East NewsPOLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews

It is a human being that matters!

Irena Sendler is known mainly for her actions during World War II. As a member of the underground as well as the "Żegota" Council to Aid Jews, she carried out—together with a group of female associates—the operation of rescuing Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto. Her actions during the German occupation reflected her outlook on life, evident also before and after the war. Irena Sendler was a true social activist—sensitive, brave and determined.

Janina and Stanisław Krzyżanowski (1903) by East NewsPOLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews

Irena Sendler, née Krzyżanowska was born on 15 February 1910 in Warsaw. Her father, a medical doctor and social activist, ran a sanatorium for people suffering from tuberculosis in Otwock. He often treated patients free of charge.

“When a person is drowning, you ought to give them a hand,” Irena Sendler used to say about the values she had been taught at her family home.

Anti-Jewish demonstrations and blockade of the University of Warsaw (1936) by Narodowe Archiwum CyfrowePOLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews

While studying law and Polish studies at the University of Warsaw, Irena Sendler openly opposed the discrimination of Jews at Polish universities in the late 1930s. She stood up for colleagues attacked by nationalist military groups. She belonged to the leftist Union of Polish Democratic Youth.

"I was raised to believe that the question of religion, nation, belonging to any race is of no importance—it’s a human being that matters!" she wrote.

Irena Sendler (Around 1940s.) by Żydowski Instytut HistorycznyPOLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews

In the early 1930s, Irena got married and embarked on a professional career—she started working in the legal department of the Mother and Child Assistance Division at the Free Polish University [Wolna Wszechnica Polska].

From 1935, she was employed as a social worker at the Warsaw Department of Social Welfare and Public Health. She devoted special attention to young women and homeless single mothers. She supported them and instructed them, e.g., how to prevent venereal diseases or unwanted pregnancy.

Irena Sendler (1943) by East NewsPOLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews

The war and help provided to Jews

"When Germans invaded Warsaw in 1939, I had a wide circle of Jewish friends and acquaintances who suddenly found themselves in a dramatic situation, unable to provide for their basic needs." Together with colleagues from the Warsaw Department of Social Welfare and Public Health, among them Jadwiga Piotrowska, Irena Schultz and Jadwiga Deneko, Irena Sendler began to organize help for Jews. She used the opportunities offered by her post: she supplied food as well as financial and material assistance. She acted efficiently, boldly and energetically.

Warsaw Ghetto, Pawia Street (1941) by H. Jost/ Żydowski Instytut HistorycznyPOLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews

In the autumn of 1940, the Germans established a ghetto in Warsaw—a closed quarter for Jews. People died there from hunger and diseases due to overcrowding and dramatic living conditions. Sendler saw it with her own eyes. Thanks to her job of a social worker, she had a sanitary pass and was able enter the ghetto.

While in the ghetto, she visited friends, brought food and medicines, and helped people sell their belongings.

As an activist of the leftist branch of the socialist movement, she participated in the underground activities, also in the ghetto. She used a code-name "Klara."

Jadwiga Piotrowska by Family archivePOLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews

Irena Sendler and her colleagues, including Jadwiga Piotrowska and Irena Schultz, forged the Social Welfare Department documentation in order to get money or food for the needy in the ghetto.

“Jaga [Jadwiga Piotrowska] came up with a brilliant idea. The basis for providing assistance in social care was a background survey. The idea was to fake these surveys. So, we would write some random Polish surname and thus we got money or clothing. These things were then collected by trusted individuals and next they were delivered to Jewish families,” said Irena Sendler.

Children begging in the street of the Warsaw Ghetto (1941) by W. Georg/ Żydowski Instytut HistorycznyPOLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews

From 1941, escape from the ghetto and hiding outside its walls was punishable by death. Germans also punished those who helped Jews hide. Attempts to escape were made mainly in 1942, when the so-called Great Liquidation Action, i.e. deportations of the ghetto residents to extermination camps, took place.

Children in an orphanage in Turkowice with their guardian, sister Irena (Antonina Manaszczuk) (Around 1942) by Family archivePOLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews

During this period, Irena Sendler and her colleagues from the Social Welfare Department made efforts to help people, and children in particular—they would lead them out of the ghetto and seek shelter on the so-called "Aryan side."

The children taken out of the ghetto were directed to Polish families or care facilities. False referrals were signed by Jan Dobraczyński, head of the Social Welfare Department. His contacts with the directors of these facilities were very precious.

Rev. G. P. Boduen Children’s Home at 75 Nowogrodzka Street in Warsaw (2015) by Adam Barański/ „Pańska Skórka”POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews

For some children who had left the ghetto, the Rev. G. P. Boduen Children’s Home—a municipal childcare facility—was a "transitional stage" already in 1940. The rescue was organized with the consent of the manager, mainly by Władysława Marynowska, who cooperated with Sendler's liaison Irena Schultz, and with Helena Szeszko. According to Marynowska's report, information about the planned arrival of a child was supplied by phone, with a code containing data on the child's appearance and time of arrival.

Warsaw Ghetto, bridge over Chłodna Street connecting the two parts of the ghetto (1942) by Narodowe Archiwum CyfrowePOLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews

Finding a safe hideout on the so-called “Aryan side” was extremely difficult and had to be done in secret, both from the Germans and the Polish community. The majority of Poles, absorbed by their daily struggles, remained passive in the face of the Holocaust. Only a few decided to help Jews. There were also those who cooperated with Germans and denounced Jews who remained in hiding.

A piece of the core exhibition at POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw illustrating the scheme of institutional help for Jews in the structures of the Polish Underground State by Mateusz SzczepaniakPOLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews

Working for "Żegota"

Discussions on the Polish government's response to the Holocaust led to the creation of a Council to Aid Jews on 4 December 1942 at the Government Delegation for Poland, codenamed "Żegota." It was a Polish-Jewish organization with representatives of the Jewish Workers' Union [the Bund] and the Jewish National Committee, next to the Poles. It was the only state-supported institution devoted to rescuing Jews in occupied Europe.

Julian Grobelny aka „Trojan” by Żydowski Instytut HistorycznyPOLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews

Most likely in January 1943 Irena Sendler contacted Julian Grobelny aka "Trojan," chairman of "Żegota," who encouraged her to cooperate. Thanks to her efforts, the liaison officers received financial support and continued assistance as part of the "Żegota" children's branch that was established at the time.

Tenement building at 15 Markowska Street in Warsaw's Praga district by Mateusz SzczepaniakPOLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews

In September 1943, under the code-name "Jolanta," Irena Sendler became a head of the children's division of "Żegota," managing a network of associates who transferred money to those in need and searched for safe hiding places. One of the emergency shelters for children taken out from the ghetto was the flat of Maria and Anna Kukulska at 15 Markowska Street in Warsaw.

Maria Palester (Before 1939) by Family archivePOLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews

Imprisonment and the Warsaw Uprising

Several days after taking up the post in "Żegota," Irena Sendler was arrested by the Gestapo. She got out of the Pawiak prison after a month, thanks to the financial support of "Żegota." A bribe was arranged by Maria Palester, a colleague from the Social Welfare Department. Maria's 14-year-old daughter, Małgosia Palester, delivered the money in her backpack hidden under porridge and noodles. After being released from prison, Sendler continued her clandestine cooperation with "Żegota."

Irena Sendler as a field nurse during the Warsaw Uprising (1944) by East NewsPOLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews

Irena Sendler lived with the Palesters in Warsaw district of Mokotów. She was there when the Warsaw Uprising broke out on 1 August 1944. Until September, she served as a nurse in a medical aid unit on Fałata Street.

Irena Sendler with her husband Stefan Zgrzembski (formerly Adam Celnikier) and daughter Janina (1948) by East NewsPOLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews

Adam Celnikier, Irena’s second husband whom she had once helped in the ghetto, hid together with her under the name Zgrzembski. The entire group managed to avoid being deported to the camp in Pruszków; they ended up in Okęcie where they co-ran a makeshift hospital.

Irena Sendler in the Warsaw Social Welfare office (1949) by East NewsPOLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews

After the war

After the war, Irena Sendler continued to provide help to the most needy—she organized orphanages for children, co-founded nursing homes and social welfare facilities. She never gave up her leftist views. Under the new political circumstances of postwar Poland, she joined Polish United Workers' Party [PZPR]. She used to say that she understood socialism as a service to others, as helping those in need: the poor, the vulnerable and the helpless.

Irena Sendler with her daughter Janina (1949) by East NewsPOLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews

She had two sons and a daughter with Stefan Zgrzembski. One of the boys died soon after birth, the second suffered from heart disease and passed away in the 1990s. In the early 1960s, Sendler reunited with her first husband, Mieczysław Sendler.

Janina Zgrzembska: Unwelcome witness to historyPOLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews

In 1968, she became ill and stopped working. At that time, the antisemitic campaign was being launched in communist Poland. As a result, several thousand Jews left the country, including Sendler’s close friends. Shocked by the events of March '68, Irena Sendler said to Jadwiga Piotrowska, her collaborator from the wartime: "Jaga, they are beating up Jews, we need to set up a new Żegota."

Irena Sendler's "Righteous Among the Nations" medalPOLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews

Righteous Among the Nations

Irena Sendler, as one of the first Polish women, was honored with the Israeli title of the "Righteous Among the Nations," awarded by the Yad Vashem Institute to people who provided Jews with selfless help during the Holocaust. She received the medal in 1965. Today, it is exhibited at POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw.

Irena Sendler and Maria Proner-Pogonowska, Holocaust survivor, during the ceremony of planting Irena Sendler’s tree in the Yad Vashem Institute (1983) by Family archivePOLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews

From 1968, Poland and Israel had not maintained diplomatic relations. Irena Sendler did not visit Jerusalem until 1983. When she finally did, she planted her own tree at Yad Vashem. It stands right at the entrance to the Garden of the Righteous.

Irena Sendler's tree in the Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations at the Yad Vashem Institute in Jerusalem by Lee-Tall HermonaPOLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews

"A tree on a mountain in Jerusalem is even more than a monument. The monument could be destroyed, and the Memorial Tree will always grow," said Irena Sendler during the ceremony.

Commander's Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta awarded to Irena Sendler in 1996 by Mateusz SzczepaniakPOLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews

Despite official awards, the accomplishments of Irena Sendler remained unknown for many years. It wasn't until the year 2000 that her story was rediscovered and began to spread. Since then, many films have been made about her life, she has been awarded numerous awards, and in 2007 and 2008 she was submitted as a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Order of the Smile awarded to Irena Sendler by Jacek RajkowskiPOLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews

In 2007, she received the Order of the Smile, an international prize awarded by children. As Sendler stated: “It is the nicest award I have ever received." The initiator of this award was Szymon Płóciennik, a teenage boy at that time. According to tradition, prior to being presented with the order, Irena Sendler had to drink lemon juice and smile.

Israeli postage stamps with the image of Irena Sendler by Mateusz SzczepaniakPOLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews

Irena Sendler died on 12 May 2008. Since then, her life and accomplishments have been commemorated in various ways. She is a patron of streets, avenues, squares, schools and awards, and her image is presented on murals, coins and postage stamps. These commemorations are run by state or local governments, as well as by grass-root initiatives.

A mural with the image of Irena Sendler painted by the "Klamra" Foundation in Bielsko-Biała (2014) by Lucjusz Cykarski/ Fundacja „Klamra”POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews

Irena Sendler continues to unite people and to inspire them. The wartime activities of her and her numerous associates testify to the unique power of spirit demonstrated by very few during the Holocaust. They provided help despite threats, death penalty, indifference and often hostility towards Jews.

Irena Sendler (2007) by East NewsPOLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews

"I wish that the memory of many noble people who risked their lives and saved Jewish brothers, but whose names nobody remembers, would live on. But the cruelty and hatred that drove people to denounce their neighbours and murder one another must be kept in our memory and in the memory of future generations. We witnessed indifference to the tragedy of those who perished. I do hope that this memory serves as a warning to the world. Let us hope that a similar tragedy will never happen again," said Irena Sendler upon receiving the Jan Karski Award in 2003.

Credits: Story

Irena Sendler
Discover the story of the Polish "Righteous Among the Nations"

Author: Klara Jackl / POLIN Museum
The exhibition is based on the educational materials by Robert Szuchta and articles by Karolina Dzięciołowska @ www.righteous.pl
Consultants: Dr. Krzysztof Persak, Adam Dylewski, Mateusz Szczepaniak, Dorota Siarkowska / POLIN Museum
Translation: Zofia Sochańska / POLIN Museum
Coordinators: Michał Horbulewicz, Klara Jackl / POLIN Museum

Photos: East News, family archives, Jewish Historical Institute, “Klamra” Foundation, National Digital Archives, POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews

Learn more about Irena Sendler and other Polish "Righteous Among the Nations" on www.righteous.pl, a website run by POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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