Irena Sendler, Resistance Fighter by Linda Harris Sittig

She should have won the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for her incredible feat of helping over 2,500 Jewish children escape from the Warsaw Ghetto in Poland, during the Holocaust.

But she lost out on the prize to someone else, and would most likely have remained unheralded if not for a group of Kansas high school girls who wrote a play called Life in a Jar, about her heroic efforts.

Working as a Catholic social worker in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1939, Irena Sendler was alarmed when Nazi soldiers built a wall surrounding the ghetto, isolating the Jews from the rest of the city. Obtaining false identification, she passed herself off as a nurse and was given permission to work within the ghetto tending to the sick.

By 1942, the real intention of the Nazi Party was becoming more visible and Irena feared for the vast number of children trapped behind the wall. She joined one of the Polish Underground parties and began to recruit other women to help her orchestrate escapes for as many children as possible. Their splinter group was small, only ten adults, but with Irena they began to carry out the daring plan.

The adults all understood the consequences of their acts; yet one by one they managed to smuggle out babies packed in suitcases, young children hidden in potato sacks, and children even lying next to corpses in coffins. Often the youngsters had to be sedated in order to keep them silent. As a supposed ‘nurse’, Irena was able to acquire the necessary drugs.

Once the children were safely outside the confines of the city, they were hidden in Catholic convents and orphanages, with new identification as non-Jews. One by one Irena wrote their true names on tiny scraps of paper and then hid the fragments in jars buried in a friend’s garden. Her hope was that one day they would be re-united with their families. As history documents however, a vast majority of the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto did not survive.

Her efforts in helping thousands of children escape were successful, but not keeping her own identity safe. In 1943 she was captured by the Nazis who broke her feet and legs in an attempt to get her to confess about her activities. She withstood the torture and then was sent to a prison camp, where she narrowly escaped death when a bribed prison guard added her name to the list of prisoners he had supposedly executed. After escaping, Irena continued her mission of saving Jewish children from being sent to the death camps.

After Poland had been liberated, she unearthed the jars and attempted to locate and help the children find their families; but only a few met with success. Eventually most of the children were adopted by other Polish families or were sent to live in Israel. Irena remained in Poland, married, and stayed out of the spotlight. She died of pneumonia at the age of 98 in May of 2008.

So, if she did not win the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, then who did? Al Gore, along with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, was awarded the prize.

Not that I don’t believe in the importance of educating people about climate change, I do. But how about educating people about one individual who spared nothing in her attempts to save 2,500 children from certain death?

In my heart, Irena Sendler holds The Prize.

For further reading consult Life in a Jar: the Irena Sendler Project by Jack Mayer or
“Sometime they’ll give a war and nobody will come.”
~Carl Sandburg, reprinted from Pearls of Wisdom by Keith Adams


About lhsittig

I am a freelance writer who specializes in historical fiction that showcases strong female protagonists. In non-fiction I focus on literacy tips for parents and teachers to help children become life long readers.
This entry was posted in history, strong women, women and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Irena Sendler, Resistance Fighter by Linda Harris Sittig

  1. clarbojahn says:

    Thanks so much for sharing about this courageous woman. I would surely not have heard of her if not for this post. I love how you find strong women and write about them. They serve as my examples. My parents would have loved hearing about Irene. My father was part of the underground in the Netherlands during the Nazi occupation. He thwarted the Germans in more than one attempt by his resistance to their plans. 🙂

  2. kandpc says:

    Irena Sendler was an incredibly brave woman. How many of us would have continued helping Jewish children after being tortured by the Nazis? Thank you so much for writing these fascnating stories, Linda.

  3. rich fox says:

    great job and she was an amazing, courageous woman. her story helps me carry on.

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