Who was Irena Sendler, and why did she smuggle Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto?


Irena Sendler (1910-2008) was a Polish social worker who helped Jews in Warsaw throughout the German occupation. She became a leading activist in Zegota after it was established in autumn 1942. From 1943, as head of the Children’s Section, she used her contacts with orphanages and other institutions to find hiding places for children. The exact number of children she saved through this work is unknown, but estimates have ranged as high as 2,500.

Sendler was just 29 when the Germans occupied Warsaw at the beginning of WW2. She risked her life to gain access to the Warsaw Ghetto after it was sealed in November 1940, obtaining a permit to inspect sanitary conditions. She used her access to help smuggle people out of the ghetto. When Zegota was established after the “Great Deportation” of summer 1942, Sendler became a leading activist, working to smuggle survivors out and establish hiding places for them.

In September 1943, Sendler was appointed head of the Children’s Section, and helped place children abandoned after the final destruction of the ghetto in orphanages and religious institutions in and around the cities of Warsaw and Lublin. She was arrested, tortured and sentenced to death in the Pawiak prison in October 1943. She was released in February 1944 after the Polish underground secured her release by bribing officials. After her release, Sendler continued to work for the resistance, after a brief period in hiding. When asked to explain her actions, she replied: “I was taught by my father that when someone is drowning you don’t ask if they can swim, you just jump in and help.” She was awarded the title of Righteous Among the Nations in 1965. She died in Warsaw in 2008, aged 98.

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