Portrait of Irena Sendler in Warsaw, Poland, circa 1939.
Irena Sendler (1910–2008) was a member of the Council for Aid to Jews, codenamed “Żegota.” Żegota was a clandestine rescue organization of Poles and Jews in German-occupied Poland. Supported by the Polish government-in-exile, Żegota coordinated efforts to save Jews from Nazi persecution and murder. It operated from 1942 to 1945.
Irena Sendler (Sendlerowa) was working as a social worker in Warsaw when World War II broke out in 1939. After the Nazis forced Warsaw’s Jews to move into the ghetto in the fall of 1940, Irena used her position and prewar network to supply food and offer financial assistance to Jews. By early 1943, Irena had joined Żegota. Żegota members secured hiding places for Polish Jews. They also delivered money, food, false identity documents, and medical assistance to those in their care.
Under the alias “Jolanta,” Irena helped smuggle several hundred Jewish children out of the Warsaw ghetto. She found hiding places for them in orphanages, convents, schools, hospitals, and private homes. Irena provided each child with a new identity. She carefully recorded their original names and placements in code so that relatives could find them after the war. In the fall of 1943, Irena was appointed head of Żegota’s children's section. Only a few days later, she was arrested by the Gestapo (German secret state police). The Gestapo brutally beat and tortured her. Nonetheless, Irena never revealed the names of the children or her colleagues. She was later released from the Gestapo prison thanks to a bribe organized by her fellow rescuers. Despite the dangers, Irena continued working with Żegota under a new alias.
Irena Sendler survived the war. In 1965, Yad Vashem recognized her as “Righteous Among the Nations.”
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