By Carolyn Danckaert, A Mighty Girl Founder
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 few people know the name of this largely unsung hero or have heard Irena Sendler's incredible story. Born in 1910, Sendler was a Polish Catholic nurse and social worker who 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 and later joined the Zegota, the underground Polish resistance organization created to aid the country's Jewish population.
In 1943, Sendler became head of Zegota'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. The children were then given false identities and placed with Polish families or in orphanages. To allow the children to be reunited with any surviving relatives following the war, Sendler buried lists containing the identities and locations of the children in jars.
After rescuing over 2,500 children, Sendler was arrested by the Gestapo, tortured and sentenced to death. Fortunately, Zegota was able to bribe the German guards as she was on her way to execution and she was forced to live in hiding for the remainder of the war. In 1965, Sendler was honored by Yad Vashem as one of the Polish Righteous among the Nations for her wartime efforts. She passed away in 2008 at the age of 98.
A fascinating part of Sendler's incredible story is that it may have been entirely lost except for 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 young researchers also had an opportunity to meet Sendler in Poland in 2001; the forgotten hero whose amazing story they helped bring to light. The students 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.
For an excellent book telling the story of the Kansas students' discovery of Sendler's story, Life in a Jar: The Irena Sendler Project, recommended for ages 13 and up.
If you'd like to inspire your kids with Sendler's amazing story, there are two children's books about her life: Irena's Jar of Secrets for ages 6 to 10 and Irena Sendler and the Children of the Warsaw Ghetto" for ages 9 and up.
There have also been two films produced about Sendler: The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler, starring Anna Paquin, for ages 13 and up and a documentary, Irena Sendler: In the Name of Their Mothers, for ages 12 and up.
For many books for young readers about girls and women who lived during the Holocaust period, including stories of other heroic resisters and rescuers, visit our post for Holocaust Remembrance Week, Yom HaShoah: A Mighty Girl Recognizes Holocaust Remembrance Week.
To learn more about the "Life in a Jar" play and to find out about upcoming performances, visit The Irena Sendler Project website.
For stories for children and youth about hundreds of real-life Mighty Girl heroes, visit our biography section.