Humans are great at building things. We’ve built everything from Lego castles to spaceships. We also break things. We break promises and even relationships when our personal desires overtake Jesus’ call to love one another as he loves us.
The world breaks too. During World War II, the very fabric of our global society was ripped at the seams to a near breaking point. The damage was so severe that battle broke out amongst powerful nations. During this war, some political leaders and soldiers etched their names in the history books for their valor and efforts at restoring peace. However, there were also thousands of unsung heroes whose grassroots efforts provided critical aid for the innocent victims of this tragedy.
One of these was a Polish Catholic social worker who saved thousands of Jewish children from Hitler’s army. Her name was Irena Sendler.
An Unsettled Life. Irena Sendler was born in Warsaw, Poland, in 1910. Her life was anything but perfect. As a child, she suffered from whooping cough, and for that reason, her family moved out of the congested city and into the open-air country town of Otwock. While there, she healed physically, but inside, her heart was breaking for the local rural Jewish community that had fallen victim to financial instability and frequent illness.
Irena’s father—a medical doctor who defied anti-Semites by treating the Jewish people during a typhoid epidemic—helped her witness firsthand the pain they went through. And when her father contracted and died from the deadly disease, she adopted their well-being as her own mission. She often said, “I was taught that if you see a person drowning, you must jump into the water to save them, whether you can swim or not.”
Sendler moved back to Warsaw, and in 1931 she was married. But her life grew more unsettled as the Germans started to invade Poland. By this time, the horrific intentions of the Nazis had become clear. Irena’s heart was already filled with an overflowing obligation toward saving the oppressed Jewish people. She searched for a way to help.
A Force to Be Reckoned With. The Nazi occupiers in Warsaw enacted laws that isolated Jews to prevent their contact with the so-called Aryan race. They also made it illegal for Jews to worship in their synagogue, to participate in public discourse, or even to sit on municipal benches. The tension came to a head when the Nazis forced all Jews to move into a bombed-out corner of the city made up of tattered buildings, minimal resources, and makeshift border walls. In 1940, this place became known as the Warsaw Ghetto, one of the clearest signs to that point that the Jews were considered disposable.
One consistent visitor to this dystopia was the small but headstrong Irena. She stood four feet eleven, and while the lack of nutritious food during the war made her thin and wispy in appearance, she proved to be determined and resourceful. She had earned a degree in social work and had all but finished her master’s degree before the war broke out. Now, as a licensed social worker, and a Catholic one at that, she was given access to the Warsaw Ghetto because the Nazis needed someone to inspect the area for infectious diseases.
Inside the ghetto, Irena got to work. She spent every available second identifying the families who were in need. She would then return to the other side of Warsaw and falsify documents, creating fictitious and elaborate back stories for each person she hoped to save. She gathered resources from a secret network of Polish philanthropists and returned with whatever she could smuggle through—food, water, toiletries, even Torahs. Her zeal was so strong that she often wore the blue and white Star of David band around her thin bicep in solidarity with those she was helping.
A Rescuer of Children. With the help of many others who put their lives at risk, Irena started rescuing children from the ghetto. At first, she focused on the orphans who were living alone on the streets. But as the conditions and brutality worsened, she began to reach out to parents and offered to take their children to safety.
Irena used every opportunity possible to smuggle the children out. She used two buildings that were on the border between the ghetto and the other side of Warsaw. Since one was a church, she taught Catholic prayers to children who were old enough to commit the words to memory. She would sneak these children into the church on the Jewish side and have them exit through the front door, on the free side. These children had been given new identities as Polish Catholics who could recite their prayers to any suspicious occupation soldier. As for the younger children, she hid them in gunnysacks or large toolboxes or under a pile of potatoes and brought them across the ghetto border to freedom.
Irena kept detailed lists that included the real names of the children, the names of their parents, and the location of the families who were caring for them. She made it clear to the families, convents, and orphanages who took the children that they were to be reunited with their families after the war. To keep the lists safe, she would bury the them in jars under an apple tree in a friend’s yard. It was one of these lists, however, that nearly cost her her life.
Irena’s Cross. The Germans had caught wind of the lists and connected the criminal activity to Irena. On October 21, 1943, she was sleeping soundly in her apartment with her children and close friend, Janka Grabowska, in a nearby room. They all woke suddenly to the sound of German soldiers pounding on the door demanding entry. Irena grabbed the list and sent it sliding across a coffee table to her friend Janka because Janka was less likely to be searched. Janka tucked the list under her shirt just before the German soldiers started slicing through pillowcases and tearing up floorboards as they ransacked the apartment. They took Irena captive, but to her delight and relief, they never searched Janka.
Irena’s relief was short-lived. She was beaten mercilessly and interrogated about her work with the Jewish community. Bruised and disoriented, she managed not to reveal any information: no names, no intel, no details about her tactics, and, for certain, no mention of her top-secret list. For her refusal to speak, the Germans sentenced her to death by firing squad.
Beaten and bloodied, Irena spent the next three weeks with only her thoughts and her God as companions. Just as St. Paul once wrote, “For to me life is Christ, and death is gain” (Philippians 1:21), she understood her calling to a life of sacrifice. In a perfectly composed memento mori, she clung to her life’s mantra: “Only the dead have done enough.”
On November 13, Irena walked toward the firing wall. But at the last moment, the soldiers received a bribe from the underground network that Irena helped establish. It was so generous that they released her from their chains and let her “escape.”
Sendler went on to save more than twenty-five hundred children from the Warsaw Ghetto. And after the war ended, she used the detailed lists she had hidden to work tirelessly to reunite children with any family members who had survived.
A Legacy of Love. All throughout the Nazi occupation of Poland, as a dark shadow spread across the Warsaw Ghetto, the Jewish community raised their hands in prayer. “What shall we eat?” they asked the Lord. “What shall we drink? What shall we wear?” Irena Sadler helped answer these prayers by smuggling in food, water, and clothes. She became a light in their darkness.
Irena spent most of her postwar years working as deputy director in several Warsaw medical schools and later as a teacher and librarian. She officially retired in 1983 and spent her final years helping the Solidarity movement, which helped shape social change for Polish workers for years to come.
In October 2003, Pope John Paul II sent Irena a personal letter thanking her for her wartime efforts. He wrote, “Please accept my hearty congratulations and respect for your extraordinarily brave activities in the years of occupation, when—disregarding your own security—you were saving many children from extermination and rendering humanitarian assistance to human beings who needed spiritual and material aid."
Sendler died on May 12, 2008, at the age of ninety-eight. Tucked in her bed was a Divine Mercy holy card that said, “Jesus, I trust in Thee.”
Irena Sendler’s legacy is one of intense love. Her passion and courage were balanced by her humble approach to serving those who were oppressed, abandoned, sick, and needy. Until her death, she continued to wonder if she had done enough. Irena reminds us that one person really can make a difference in the lives of others. She also compels us to ask what we can do to make a difference. The answer? To be a light anywhere we see darkness in our homes and communities.
T. J. Burdick writes from Michigan and can be found at tjburdick.com.