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Digital Subscriptions > History Revealed > February 2018 > Sendler’s List

Sendler’s List

Pat Kinsella reveals the remarkable deeds of Irena Sendler, the Polish heroine who saved more than 2,000 Jewish children during World War II, for which she was arrested, tortured and sentenced to death
UNSUNG HEROINE As a young girl, Irena was taught always to help people, no matter the risk to her own life – it was a lesson that drove her to stand up against the Nazis

During the darkest days of World War II, the Nazis were intensifying their ‘Final Solution’, systematically transporting and murdering Poland’s Jews at a rate of thousands per day. In the midst of the Warsaw Ghetto, one Catholic social worker risked her life by orchestrating an underground operation to save some of the most vulnerable.

Irena Sendler smuggled babies, toddlers and young children out of the ghetto, where the Jewish population was confined. She may have had a small frame and gentle smile, but they belied nerves of steel and a burning resistance to the abhorrent situation she saw unfolding in her country.

Irena also possessed prodigious powers of persuasion, which were vital in convincing complete strangers – families who had literally lost everything except each other – to give up their children for their own good. Those who agreed to suffer such a separation did so only because they knew their own death was imminent, and that their loved ones’ infancy would be no defense against a Nazi killing machine hell bent on completing a genocide. The rescued children were deposited into adoptive homes outside the ghetto, or tucked away into convents and orphanages, and given new non-Jewish identities to shield them from further harm.

Despite the extreme extra level of danger it incurred, Irena maintained lists of those saved by the network she built, in which she coupled children’s real names with their assumed identities in glass jars buried beneath a tree. This secret cache could have brought death down upon the heads of everyone involved had it been discovered, but Irena was adamant that the notes needed to be kept so the children could eventually find out who they were and where they came from.

Details of approximately 2,500 souls were sealed in those jars – over twice as many lives as Oskar Schindler saved with his famous list – to be unearthed once the horror had passed. Yet the name Irena Sendler and knowledge of her extraordinary actions, and those of her network of helpers, remained buried for six decades after the end of war.

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