Irena Sendler: The Polish Woman who helped save Jewish Children during World War Two

In June of this year, a statue was unveiled in Newark in Nottinghamshire to a Polish woman who played a hugely important role during World War Two. The woman was Irena Sendler, who helped to rescue an estimated 2,500 children from the Jewish Ghetto in Warsaw. It may sound a little odd that Newark was chosen for the site of the statue, but Newark has had many Polish connections. The statue itself is in a park close to the Polish cemetery in the town, where the bodies of many Polish airmen who were stationed in Newark during the Second World War.[1] I had never heard of the brave and heroic efforts of Irena and her colleagues, but after looking more into her story, I feel it should be shared more. The statue in Newark also aims to share her amazing story.

Irena was born as Irena Krzyzanowska on the 15th of February 1910 to Dr Stanislaw Krzyzanowski and his wife, Helen. Stanislaw died of typhus when Irena was 7, after contracting it from patients he was treating. He had decided to treat the patients, many of them Jews, as other doctors had refused to treat them for fear of catching typhus.[2] In recognition for the treatment offered, Jewish community leaders offered to pay for Irena’s education.[3] This was politely turned down, but Irena did go on to study Literature at Warsaw University. Whilst at university, she became opposed to the Jewish segregation policy that existed in some pre-war Polish universities. In protest, she defaced her grade card and was suspended for three years.[4]

Irena Sendler in 1942, Wikimedia Commons

Following her suspension, she tried to apply for teaching roles, but was always rejected due to Warsaw University warning of her previous behaviour.[5] Instead, she chose to become a social worker and wanted to improve people’s standards of living. When the Germans invaded Poland in 1939, she began offering food and shelter to Jews at risk. This was only able to continue until 1940, when the Jewish Ghetto in Warsaw was erected, which completely segregated the Jewish community. As she couldn’t openly assist the Jewish community as she had done previously, she decided to help orphaned Jewish children, which was a common occurrence with disease rife in the Ghetto. As a social worker, she was able to get papers to enter the Ghetto, with much assistance from a worker within the Contagious Disease Department.[6]

She became a member of the Zegota, a code name for the Council to Aid Jews, a secret organisation set up by the exiled Polish Government to help Jews in Poland find safety.[7] The organisation was the most consistently organised resistance group in operation throughout the Second World War, and encouraged Christians and Jews alike to offer whatever aid they could to Jews at risk of their lives.[8] Irena quickly became the person in charge of the children’s division of the Zegota. Her and her network devised many different methods to smuggle the children out of the Ghetto, including hiding children in ambulances and in trunks or sacks, or through sewers and other secret passageways.[9] One of the main ones used was a church that was next to the Ghetto. It was known as a ‘sealed’ entrance, or a sort of barrier, as it had two gates, one that led to the Ghetto, and another that led to other parts of Warsaw. Children would be smuggled in if they had good enough Polish and could recite some Christian prayers.[10]

The children who were smuggled out of the Ghetto were handed over by their families with the hopes of saving them from death. Irena ensured that all the families the Jewish children lived with during the war knew their birth families had been promised the children would be returned to them when the war ended.[11] Children who could not be found a family were housed in orphanages run by nuns, which was the next safest place for them.[12] The children were given a new identity with Christian names to hide them from the Germans and Irena had kept coded information on their birth identities and families buried in jars and bottles underneath a neighbours’ apple tree to hide them from discovery.[13] The hiding place was only just across the road from a German barracks.[14]

Irena Sendler in 2005, Wikimedia Commons

Irena’s life was just as in danger as the families who had taken the Jewish children in. In October 1943, she was arrested by the Gestapo. She was constantly questioned and tortured in order to give up information on the Zegota network. Despite having her legs and feet broken, she only ever gave up false information her and her associates had agreed upon if they were ever captured.[15] Once she had given this information, she was told she would be shot to death. On the day of her execution, she was taken into a room by her execution on the basis of last minute questioning, but in reality he let her go as he had been bribed by the Zegota.[16] The next day, posters were put up all over Warsaw saying she had been killed, so the man who helped her escape must have convinced the Germans that he had done his duty. I hope he was able to survive as he would have been killed for what he had done.

For the rest of the war, Irena had to live in hiding, just has the children she had saved had had to do. When the war ended, she dug up the bottles with the children’s identities and tried to trace their a living parent. Unfortunately, the vast majority of them had been killed at Treblinka death camp, but the amount of children she had saved had been great.[17] Her compassionate nature continued with her career as a social worker. She continued to help set up and run care homes and orphanages.[18]

Tree honouring Irena in The Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations, Yad Vashem, in Jerusalem, Wikimedia Commons

Her work rescuing Jewish children had been largely forgotten, other than the immediate recognition from the Polish government straight after the war, and a tree planted in The Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations, Yad Vashem, in Jerusalem, in 1965, which honours individuals who helped the Jews during the Holocaust.[19] It wasn’t until 4 students from America contacted Irena in 2001 about her story that the truth in its entirety was discovered. Irena’s response was emotion, but she admitted it had been overshadowed by the fact she was one of the only ones among her colleagues left who was left to receive the recognition and honour given to their life saving work.[20] Irena died in 2008 at the age of 98, but I hope this, alongside other attempts, such as the statue in Newark, raise the profile of the importance and heroism of Irena and her network of colleagues and most significantly, the amount of gratitude they should be given for the lives they saved by risking their own.


[1] ‘Polish humanitarian hero Irena Sendler had her statue officially unveiled at Newark’s Fountain Gardens on London Road after a small COVID-secure ceremony this Saturday’, Radio Newark, 28 June 2021, https://www.radionewark.co.uk/news/local-news/polish-humanitarian-hero-irena-sendler-had-her-statue-officially-unveiled-at-newarks-fountain-gardens-on-london-road-after-a-small-covid-secure-ceremony-this-saturday-26-june-2021/

[2] Life in a Jar: the Irena Sendler Project, https://irenasendler.org/

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid

[5] ‘Irena Sendler was born 111 years ago’, The International Roul Wallenburg Foundation, 15 Feb 2021, https://www.raoulwallenberg.net/general/irena-sendler-was-born-111-years-ago/

[6] Life in a Jar: the Irena Sendler Project, https://irenasendler.org/

[7] ‘Jewish Resistance: Konrad Żegota Committee’, Jewish Virtual Library, https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-379-egota

[8] Ibid

[9] Life in a Jar: the Irena Sendler Project, https://irenasendler.org/

[10] Ibid

[11] Ibid

[12] ‘Irena Sendler was born 111 years ago’, The International Roul Wallenburg Foundation, 15 Feb 2021, https://www.raoulwallenberg.net/general/irena-sendler-was-born-111-years-ago/

[13] Ibid

[14] ‘Irena Sendler was born 111 years ago’, The International Roul Wallenburg Foundation, 15 Feb 2021, https://www.raoulwallenberg.net/general/irena-sendler-was-born-111-years-ago/

[15] Life in a Jar: the Irena Sendler Project, https://irenasendler.org/

[16] Ibid

[17] Ibid

[18] ‘Irena Sendler was born 111 years ago’, The International Roul Wallenburg Foundation, 15 Feb 2021, https://www.raoulwallenberg.net/general/irena-sendler-was-born-111-years-ago/

[19] ‘Polish humanitarian hero Irena Sendler had her statue officially unveiled at Newark’s Fountain Gardens on London Road after a small COVID-secure ceremony this Saturday’, Radio Newark, 28 June 2021, https://www.radionewark.co.uk/news/local-news/polish-humanitarian-hero-irena-sendler-had-her-statue-officially-unveiled-at-newarks-fountain-gardens-on-london-road-after-a-small-covid-secure-ceremony-this-saturday-26-june-2021/

[20] Life in a Jar: the Irena Sendler Project, https://irenasendler.org/

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