The Holocaust was one of the most violent, cruel, and devastating periods in human history.
Yet even in the face of unspeakable tragedy, when it seems that things are utterly hopeless, heroes do occasionally arise.
That was certainly the case with Irena Sendler, who did some incredible work to keep Jewish children safe. Her methods, however, were far from conventional.
Irena Sendler was born on February 15, 1910 in Warsaw, Poland. Her father died of typhus when she was just 7 years old, but he left a remarkable impression on her, teaching the girl to do everything she could to help those in need.
Her father had been a doctor, so Irena followed his example and became a nurse at the Warsaw Department of Social Welfare, which provided clothing and food to families. A Catholic, Irena also resisted the anti-Semitic sentiment that was growing in Europe and decided to treat Jewish families that were victims of prejudice.
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When Jews were forced into ghettos, Irena joined the ŻEGOTA (Council to Aid Jews). She worked with her collaborators to help children escape death at the Warsaw ghetto by placing them with foster families or orphanages.
Sadly, with no way of knowing how much worse things would get, a number of mothers in the ghetto refused to give up their children.
Irena helped the children escape by placing them in ambulances already occupied by seriously ill patients who were being transported to hospitals. When surveillance ramped up, she had to get creative—she often had the children hide in garbage bags, sacks, and coffins.
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Irena once even hid a 5-month-old named Elzunia by transporting her in a wooden box along with a brick shipment.
In all, more than 2,500 children’s lives were saved thanks to Irena, as the records that she kept in a jar in her neighbor’s garden can prove. Unfortunately, her good deeds didn’t go unpunished. Irena was eventually caught and viciously tortured in prison, and she was condemned to death by the Nazis when she refused to reveal where all the children were hiding.
Luckily, Irena managed to escape after bribing a soldier. She even continued helping people under an assumed identity.
When World War II ended, Irena provided the jar of records for the Surviving Jews Rescue Committee. She happily married and had three children of her own.
“The reason I rescued the children has its origin in my home, in my childhood,” Irena later said. “I was educated in the belief that a helpless person should be helped from the heart, without looking at his religion or nationality.”
Irena died at the age of 98 in 2008, one year after being nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.
Irena Sendler left behind a truly remarkable legacy that should never be forgotten. Hopefully, more people will follow in her footsteps and help those in need throughout the world!
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