Irena Sendler was born as Irena Krzyżanowska on 15 February 1910. From a young age she fought inequality. While she studied literature and Warsaw University she defaced her grade card in defiance of the ghetto-bench system that existed at some pre-war Polish universities. She was suspended from the University of Warsaw for three years for this public protest.
By the time World War II broke out, Sendler was 29 years old and employed by the Welfare Department of the Warsaw municipality as a social worker. She used this position to help the many Jews facing discrimination in the area. However, this became almost impossible in November 1940 when the ghetto was sealed off, driving nearly 400,000 people into the small area. Seeing the horrendous conditions those in the ghetto faced, Sendler secured a permit from the municipality that enabled her to enter the ghetto to inspect the sanitary conditions. Once inside, she established contact with activists of the Jewish welfare organization and began to help them by smuggling Jews out of the ghetto and setting up hiding spaces for them.
Irena and her helpers made over 3,000 false documents to help Jewish families before she joined Zegota (the Council for Aid to Jews) and the children’s division. She used many different methods to smuggle children out. There were five main means of escape: 1 – using an ambulance a child could be taken out hidden under the stretcher. 2 – escape through the courthouse. 3 – a child could be taken out using the sewer pipes or other secret underground passages. 4 – A trolley could carry out children hiding in a sack, in a trunk, a suitcase or something similar. 5 – if a child could pretend to be sick or was actually very ill, it could be legally removed using the ambulance. She and her network made lists of the children’s real names and put the lists in jars, then buried the jars in a garden, so that someday she could dig up the jars and find the children to tell them of their real identity.
Irena (code name Jolanta) was arrested on October 20, 1943. She was placed in the notorious Piawiak prison, where she was constantly questioned and tortured. During the questioning she had her legs and feet fractured.
She received a death sentence. She was to be shot. Unbeknown to her, Zegota had bribed the German executioner who helped her escape. On the following day the Germans loudly proclaimed her execution. Posters were put up all over the city with the news that she was shot. Irena read the posters herself.
During the remaining years of the war, she lived hidden, just like the children she rescued. Irena was the only one who knew where the children were to be found. When the war was finally over, she dug up the jars and began the job of finding the children and trying to find a living parent. Sadly, almost all of the children’s parents had died at the Treblinka death camp and they remained with adoptive families.
Sendler’s story went largely unknown until 1999 when a group of school children in America learned of her amazing life and begam writing the play, Life in a Jar to celebrate her. The following year they found out she was still living and started writing to her.” In one of Irena’s first letters to the girls, she wrote, “My emotion is being shadowed by the fact that no one from the circle of my faithful co-workers, who constantly risked their lives, could live long enough to enjoy all the honours that now are falling upon me…. I can’t find the words to thank you, my dear girls…. Before the day you have written the play “Life in a Jar” — nobody in my own country and in the whole world cared about my person and my work during the war …”