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Irena Sendler: The Woman Who Saved the Lives of 2,500 Jewish Children During the Holocaust

Irena Sendler led a secret operation to successfully smuggle Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto, saving them from almost certain death

One of the great heroes of WWII led a secret operation to successfully smuggle 2,500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto, saving them from almost certain death — yet until recently, few people had heard Irena Sendler's incredible story. This Polish Catholic nurse and social worker defied the Nazis at great personal risk, and nearly paid the ultimate price for her courageous actions. And even when she was tortured by the Gestapo, she never told them the names or locations of the children she had rescued. Her story is one of tremendous moral fortitude and the determination to fight evil, no matter the cost.

Born in 1910 near Warsaw, Sendler began aiding Jews as early as 1939, after the Germans invaded Poland. At first, she helped to create false documents for over 3,000 Jewish families, but she later joined the Żegota, the underground Polish resistance organization created to aid the country's Jewish population. In 1943, Sendler became head of Żegota's children's division and used her special access to the Warsaw Ghetto, granted to Social Welfare Department employees to conduct inspections for typhus, to set up a smuggling operation. She and her colleagues began secretly transporting babies and children out of the Ghetto by hiding them in an ambulance with a false bottom or in baskets, coffins, and even potato sacks.

Once the children were out of the ghetto, Sendler arranged for them to be given false identities and placed them with Polish families or in orphanages. However, she never gave up hope that, after the war, the children might find their families and resume their Jewish identities. In hopes of that, Sendler kept meticulous lists of each child's real name. In the wrong hands, these documents would have been fatal to Sendler, the others in her network, and to the children they saved; to protect them, Sendler sealed the lists in jars and buried them. Only she knew where the information lay, waiting for the day that she could safely dig them up again.

After rescuing over 2,500 children, Sendler was arrested by the Gestapo, tortured and sentenced to death. Fortunately, Żegota was able to bribe the German guards as she was on her way to execution; now it was Sendler's turn to be smuggled to safety. Sendler was forced to live in hiding for the remainder of the war, although she continued her work for Żegota under a false name. After the war was over, Sendler and her colleagues gathered the records with the details about all of the children that had been placed in hiding, but almost all of their parents had been killed in the Treblinka extermination camp or were listed among the missing. In 1965, Sendler was honored by Yad Vashem as one of the Polish Righteous among the Nations for her wartime efforts.

A fascinating part of Sendler's incredible story is that it was almost entirely lost — but was saved by the impressive research efforts of several high school students in Kansas. In 1999, high school teacher Norm Conard encouraged three of his students, Megan Steward, Elizabeth Cambers, and Sabrina Coons, to work on a year-long National History Day project. Starting with a short news clipping that mentioned Sendler, the girls conducted a year-long investigation into her life and, ultimately, wrote a play about Sendler entitled "Life in a Jar." The play ignited interest in Sendler's story and it has been performed hundreds of times across the US, Canada, and in Poland.  The story of Sendler and three high school girls was also told in a moving book, Life In a Jar: The Irena Sendler Project.

After their play became an unexpected success, the young researchers had an opportunity to meet the forgotten hero whose amazing story they had helped bring to light in 2001. The students were so inspired by her that they also organized a campaign to nominate Sendler for the Nobel Peace Prize. She was nominated in 2007; however, she was not eligible to win because one of the requirements of the prize is that the individual meet the criteria of "significant activities during the past two years" and the accomplishments for which she was nominated had taken place decades earlier.

Irena Sendler passed away in 2008 at the age of 98, but today, her story stands as one of the great examples of quiet heroism during the second World War — even if she never considered herself a hero. "Heroes do extraordinary things. What I did was not an extraordinary thing. It was normal," Sendler once said. "You see a man drowning, you must try to save him even if you cannot swim."

Books And Movies About Irena Sendler

Irena Sendler and the Children of the Warsaw Ghetto

Irena Sendler and the Children of the Warsaw Ghetto

Written by: Susan Goldman Rubin
Illustrated by: Bill Farnsworth
Recommended Age: 6 - 9

In Poland's Warsaw Ghetto, a diminutive social worker visited the Jewish families trapped there... and when she left, she took children with her. Using toolboxes with false bottoms, ambulances, food sacks, and even coffins, Irena Sendler concealed the children, risking her own life to get the children outside the ghetto's walls and providing them with new identities so they could live out the war in safety. In this detailed biography, full of hazy and harrowing illustrations, kids learn about Sendler's courageous act of compassion and defiance.

Irena's Jars of Secrets

Irena's Jars of Secrets

Written by: Marcia Vaughan
Illustrated by: Ron Mazellan
Recommended Age: 6 - 10

In Poland's Warsaw Ghetto during WWII, a young nurse and social worker went about her daily work, caring for the sick — and smuggling Jewish children out to safety. Irena Sendler knew what she was risking, but she couldn't bear to watch children suffer and do nothing. And after every child was safe — over 2,500 children in total — she meticulously recorded their name in hopes that, someday, they could be reunited with their families. This emotional picture book captures Sendler's remarkable heroism in the face of unthinkable consequences.

Jars of Hope: How One Woman Helped Save 2,500 Children During the Holocaust

Jars of Hope: How One Woman Helped Save 2,500 Children During the Holocaust

Written by: Jennifer Roy
Illustrated by: Meg Owenson
Recommended Age: 7 - 10

In Poland's Warsaw Ghetto during WWII, a young nurse and social worker went about her daily work, caring for the sick — and smuggling Jewish children out to safety. Irena Sendler knew what she was risking, but she couldn't bear to watch children suffer and do nothing. And after every child was safe — over 2,500 children in total — she meticulously recorded their name in hopes that, someday, they could be reunited with their families. This illustrated biography from the Encounter: Narrative Nonfiction series tells Sendler's inspiring story in an accessible and evocative way, perfect for young readers.

Irena's Children: A True Story of Courage - Young Readers Edition

Irena's Children: A True Story of Courage - Young Readers Edition

Recommended Age: 10 - 14

In Irena's Children: The Extraordinary Story of the Woman Who Saved 2,500 Children from the Warsaw Ghetto, Tilar J. Mazzeo told Irena Sendler's incredible story of smuggling children out of the Jewish ghetto to foster families in order to keep them safe; this edition makes that story accessible to younger readers. Tweens and teens will be fascinated to read about the many ways Sendler helped children escape — from hiding them under her overcoat to slipping them through secret passages — and about her incredible determination not to reveal their names and locations, even under torture and risk of losing her life.

The Safest Lie
New!

The Safest Lie
New!

Written by: Angela Cerrito
Recommended Age: 9 - 12

Nine-year-old Anna is struggling to survive the horrible conditions of the Warsaw Ghetto in Nazi-occupied Poland, but the frail girl is at real risk of starving to death. Then she meets a woman who calls herself Jolanta — the resistance spy Irena Sendler who has been smuggling children out of the ghetto — and she wants to get Anna out next. To do that, Anna must pretend to be Roman Catholic orphan Anna Karwolska, and not only struggle with pretending to be someone else, but also remembering who she really is. This emotionally powerful work of historical fiction was based on interviews with Sendler and the real-life experiences of the thousands of children she saved.

Irena Sendler: Bringing Life to Children of the Holocaust

Irena Sendler: Bringing Life to Children of the Holocaust

Written by: Susan Brophy Down
Recommended Age: 10 - 14

As a child, Irena Sendler learned the importance of compassion from her father. As an adult, it would drive her to risk her life to save the innocent. This young reader biography of the Polish Catholic woman who saved thousands of Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto gives Sendler's story important context for middle grade readers, including the history of World War II, the impact of Nazi invasion and occupation, and the many unsung people who defied prejudice and violence to do what was right. Lesser known stories and moving photographs make this an excellent addition to the bookshelf.

Life in a Jar: The Irena Sendler Project

Life in a Jar: The Irena Sendler Project

Written by: Jack Mayer
Recommended Age: 13 and up

When three girls at a Kansas high school stumbled across a reference to a woman who had rescued thousands of Jewish children named Irena Sendler, their teacher encouraged them to find out more. What they discovered was an inspiring story of heroism that was nearly lost forever. They wrote a play called "Life in a Jar," which was first performed in their hometown... and then in New York, Los Angeles, Montreal, and finally Poland, where it made Sendler a national hero once again. This book is the story of both Sendler's remarkable rescue efforts and of the girls who brought her story back into the light.

Women Heroes of World War II

26 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance, and Rescue

Women Heroes of World War II

26 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance, and Rescue

Written by: Kathryn J. Atwood
Recommended Age: 12 and up

During World War II, women around the world stood up to protect those they could, doing everything from transmitting radio messages from occupied France, to hiding Jewish families or smuggling them out of dangerous territory, to conducting sabotage missions throughout Europe. Kathryn J. Atwood tells some of their stories in this book, showing how these women, from many nations and backgrounds, each took tremendous risks to fight the battles that they were not permitted to fight on the front. A companion book, Women Heroes of World War II: The Pacific Theater, tells the stories of women's contributions in China, Japan, Malaya, Singapore, the Dutch East Indies, and the Philippines.

Irena's Children: The Extraordinary Story of the Woman Who Saved 2,500 Children from the Warsaw Ghetto

Irena's Children: The Extraordinary Story of the Woman Who Saved 2,500 Children from the Warsaw Ghetto

Written by: Tilar J. Mazzeo
Recommended Age: Adults

In 1942, a young social worker named Irena Sendler received permission to access the Warsaw Ghetto as a public health specialist, arguing that it was critical to prevent diseases from spreading to the rest of the city. Her real purpose there, though, was very different: Sendler wanted to smuggle as many children as she could out of the walled ghetto, and place them with families and orphanages who would conceal their true identities. Sendler would rescue over 2,500 children and save their names on secret lists, buried in jars, in hopes of reuniting them with their families after the war. Author Tilar Mazzeo tells Sendler's compelling story in this adult biography; this title is also available in a Young Readers edition that is suitable for age 10 to 14.

The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler

The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler

Recommended Age: 13 and up

In Nazi-occupied Warsaw, Poland, a young social worker, Irena Sendler, uses her access to the Jewish ghetto to rescue the daughter of a friend and hide her with a Catholic family. The experience drives Sendler to help more Jewish children and soon she is head of the children's division of the Polish Resistance. With the support of sympathetic friends and coworkers, she sets up a rescue operation that eventually helps 2,500 children escape near certain death. The true story of this remarkable woman is compellingly told in this excellent made-for-TV film starring Anna Paquin; it's an excellent way to prompt discussion about the many acts of heroism during the second World War.

Irena Sendler: In the Name of Their Mothers

Irena Sendler: In the Name of Their Mothers

Recommended Age: 12 and up

In this powerful PBS documentary, Irena Sendler and other women from Poland's Zegota resistance network get to tell their own stories about their daring and dangerous rescue work during World War II. Filmmaker Mary Skinner — the daughter of a Warsaw war orphan — captures the last interviews Sendler gave before her death, as well as the stories of Sendler's colleagues and even some of the children that they rescued from almost certain death. It's a story of courage, character, and the determination to do what is right in the face of evil.

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