This Day in Jewish History

1943: Gestapo Arrests Catholic Woman for Saving Jewish Children in Warsaw

Neither torture nor the threat of imminent death could induce Irena Sendler to betray the children she saved or the people behind the rescues.

Poeticbent, Wikimedia Commons

On this day in 1943,  Irena Sendler was arrested by the Gestapo in Warsaw, in connection with her to efforts to save Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto from death, and to find them homes where they might survive the war. Though sentenced to death by the Germans, Sendler, 33, a non-Jew, survived World War II. But it would be another 40 years before she was able to enjoy the recognition she received for helping to save an estimated 2,500 children from death.

A family that cared

Irena Krzyanowska was born on February 15, 1910, in Warsaw, and grew up in Otwock, a Roman Catholic in a town with a large Jewish population some 25 kms southeast of the Polish capital. Her father, Stanisaw Krzyanowski, was a physician known for providing medical care to anyone who needed it, regardless of their background or financial situation. He died in 1917 after contracting typhus in the line of duty. Irena’s mother, Janina, was a social worker.

In 1927, Irena began studying law at the University of Warsaw, though she only completed her studies 12 years later, in 1939. Not only had she switched from the law to the humanities: she was prevented from sitting for final exams for three years running, after she insisted on sitting with the Jewish students, once the university began segregating them from Gentiles, in 1937.

By the time she graduated, Sendler had also been working for several years in the city’s welfare department, providing meals and other assistance to impoverished residents. After the German invasion of Poland, in September 1939, when Jews were no longer eligible to receive any welfare benefits, she began focusing on forging documents that would give Jewish residents Christian identities.

In November 1940, the Warsaw Ghetto, which had been established a half-year earlier, was sealed, with some 400,000 Jews confined within its walls. Sendler’s boss arranged for her to have a pass to get in and out of the ghetto, ostensibly to check on the presence of typhus, but enabling her to distribute a wide range of assistance.

The German policy mandated death for anyone caught giving assistance to Jews, and also to that individual’s family, but Sendler was able to recruit at least one helper from each of Warsaw’s 10 social service offices.

Smuggling children in coffins

In the autumn of 1942, after the deportation of some 280,000 Jews to Treblinka, Sendler joined Zegota, the clandestine Council to Aid Jews, and soon was given charge of its children’s section. She set out to save as many ghetto children as possible.

Zegota smuggled children out in gunnysacks, coffins and through tunnels that connected to the outside world, some of them passing through the law courts. As challenging as that was, of equal difficulty was convincing Jewish parents to trust her to do her best to save their children. She later said that it was those parents, not she and her colleagues, who were the real heroes.

It is estimated that some 2,500 children were saved by Sendler and her comrades, They found the children homes both in church institutions, none of which ever turned down a request to help, and with private families. She kept careful records about each child, in the mostly vain hope that it might be possible to reunite them with their families after the war.

On October 20, 1943, Sendler was arrested by the Gestapo. Though they broke the bones in her legs and feet, she did not give up the identities of her colleagues or of the children she had saved. She was sentenced to death, but on the day of her scheduled execution, in February 1944, Zegota bribed a German officer to let her go. She spent the rest of the war in hiding, working with the Polish underground.

Although Irena Sendler was recognized by Yad Vashem as a Righteous Gentile in 1965, she was persona non grata in the Communist Poland, and was prevented from leaving the country until 1983.

She became much better known in 1999, after a group of American high school students learned about her and produced a play about her story, which was followed by a TV movie and international attention.

Irena Sendler died in Warsaw on May 12, 2008, at age 98.

Commemorating the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, April 19, 2013.
AP