Written by Chris Fairley, Policy and Partnerships Coordinator at HOPE not hate Charitable Trust
The Germans crowded over 400,000 Jews into the Warsaw Ghetto, both a stop on the way to the concentration camps and an attempt at extermination itself. It was sealed in November 1940, by which time Sendler and her colleagues had been banned from assisting Jews in any way. Poor conditions, below starvation rations and severe overcrowding made the ghetto vulnerable to typhus. Worried about it spreading, the Nazis gave Sendler a special permit to conduct typhus inspections. She would use this cover to save the lives of two and a half thousand children.
Sendler was a fantastic organiser, and recalled that it took around 12 people working in complete secrecy to save one child - drivers to move them around, priests to baptise them, bureaucrats to create documents, and families or organisations to take them in. Some children were given sleeping medication and passed off as dead, and a mechanic working with Sendler reportedly smuggled out babies in his toolbox.
She refused to give up a single child in the face of brutal torture
The children were given Christian names and taught Christian prayers in case they were tested, but Sendler wanted to preserve their Jewish identities. To give families a chance at reunion after the war she kept careful records, hiding them in jam jars - a cover nearly blown when the Gestapo ransacked her house. Sendler was sent to the notorious Pawiak prison, where she refused to give up a single child in the face of brutal torture, before escaping when her comrades bribed her guards. She worked as a nurse, under the name Klara Dąbrowska, until the Germans left Warsaw.
It is hard to imagine the strength it took to be Irena Sendler: withstanding the emotional toll of separating children from frightened families; organising such a complex and secretive operation; and coming back again and again when being caught helping Jews meant execution, not just for you but potentially your entire family. Writing to the Polish senate in 2007, a year before her death, she explained the sense of duty that drove her: “Every child saved with my help and the help of all the wonderful messengers who are today no longer alive is the justification for my existence on this earth, rather than a claim for honour”.