This Woman Is a Hero of the Holocaust in Poland – but Virtually Unknown in Israel

Irena Sendlerowa saved 2,500 children from the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II, but only now- a decade after her death- her story of altruism is told in a book just released in Israel

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Irena Sendlerowa, a woman who saved 2,500 from the Warsaw Ghetto.
Irena Sendlerowa, a woman who saved 2,500 from the Warsaw Ghetto.Credit: REUTERS
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

The story of the exceptional heroism of Irena Sendlerowa has still not received its rightful place in Holocaust memory in Israel. The fact is that even in Poland, her own homeland, she only became well known relatively late. Another reason may be that her story has yet to receive successful Hollywood treatment (although like Oskar Schindler, Sendlerowa also kept lists of the Jews she saved).

A new book, “Irena’s Children: The Extraordinary Story of the Woman Who Saved 2,500 Children from the Warsaw Ghetto,” which was published in Hebrew by Keter in time for Holocaust Remembrance Day, is a renewed attempt to tell the story to the Israeli audience. Sendlerowa, who died a decade ago in Poland at the age of 98, was recognized as a Righteous Among the Nations by the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Center in Jerusalem. Against the background of the discussions surrounding the controversial Polish Holocaust Law and the role Poles played in persecuting Jews during World War II, her story is now more important than ever as a symbol of the Poles who risked their lives in order to save Jews.

Prof. Tilar Mazzeo, the author of the new book, says that in her homeland today, Sendlerowa is a hero – although she refused to identify herself as such – but her story, like many others throughout Poland, was buried for decades. This was due partly to the communist government that ruled the country until 1989, and partly because of the culture of memory and discourse about the Holocaust, which is also influenced by politics.

Sendlerowa, a Polish social worker, was 29 years old when World War II broke out. She took advantage of her job in the welfare department of the Warsaw municipality, which was supposed to help only Poles, in order to use her resources, her staff and her energy for a rescue operation of exceptional scope – of Jewish children.

“It was easier to hide a tank than a Jewish child in the Holocaust,” she said after the war. Her rescue operation used varied methods, including forging files and names, obtaining false sickness authorizations and smuggling money, food, medicines and clothes, to enable Jewish children to benefit from assistance meant only for their Polish neighbors.

“The basis for receiving welfare assistance was gathering data and statistics from the communities. Then we forged the statistics – in other words, we composed lists of names that we invented – and in that way we were able to get money, food and clothing,” she once explained.

To prevent the Germans from visiting the needy families who were listed as Polish on paper, she added comments about lethal, contagious diseases such as typhus and cholera – of which the Germans were deathly afraid. She even obtained a certificate as a disease inspector, which enabled her to regularly enter and leave the ghetto.

The book explains her methods in detail. For example, when a Christian child died in a local orphanage, she made sure that the death would not be reported. Instead, the child’s name and registration number were used to provide a new identity and place for a Jewish street child. In one instance she was helped by a priest from the city of Lviv, now in Ukraine, after all of his community’s documents were lost in a fire. “The priest offered all the blank birth certificates that remained in his possession, and the German authorities were unable to compare them to what was written in the registration books,” the book quotes Sendlerowa as saying.

Children who were saved from the Warsaw Ghetto during the Holocaust. Credit: Universal History Archive / UIG

She put even more energy into her forbidden underground activity after the Jews of Warsaw were sent to the ghetto. She did it as part of her job as the director of the children’s department of Zegota – the Council to Aid Jews – which was active in occupied Poland.

Later she focused on smuggling many Jewish babies out of the ghetto under the noses of the Nazis – in suitcases, wooden crates and through the sewers. Among the destinations were convents and Christian Polish families.

A book-worthy story

“She was a small, thin woman with an iron will. A young woman with a slim figure, 1.5 meters tall. She was in her late twenties when the war broke out. She fought fearlessly and with the wisdom of an experienced general,” says Mazzeo, an American-Canadian historian who specializes in writing biographies about women.

She decided to write a book about Sendlerowa after her first visit to Poland in 2009, when she initially heard about her. Mazzeo says that Sendlerowa was already famous in her own country but not very well known in the United States. When she delved into the subject – not only about Irena Sendlerowa but also about the stories of many others who were part of her network, inside and outside the ghetto. She thought it was important history, and it was worth writing a book about it.

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Sendlerowa received honors, appreciation, prizes and medals during her lifetime, and even a personal letter from the pope. She was also a Nobel Peace Prize nominee, but Yad Vashem refused to support the nomination, claiming that all the Righteous Among the Nations are worthy of honor and there should be no preference shown for only one of them.

In recent decades everyone in Poland has been speaking about Sendlerowa. She is the star of films and books, including children’s books. She has streets and schools named after her and her activities are commemorated with exhibitions. 2018 was declared Sendlerowa Year in Poland. The Polish-Jewish journalist Anna Bikont recently published another historical study of her in Poland, which also offers a renewed reading of her story.

The Hebrew cover of the book 'Irena’s Children: The Extraordinary Story of the Woman Who Saved 2,500 Children from the Warsaw Ghetto.'Credit: Keter Publishing House

In the present Polish discourse, Sendlerowa is a winning card. Thanks to her, the government can turn the spotlight on Polish Righteous Among the Nations and divert the discussion from the part Poles played in Nazi crimes.

Mazzeo says that the story is sometimes reedited for political reasons, in order to serve agendas that are not directly – or not at all – historical. It’s clear that this is a story about great morality and courage, but at the same time, she says, one must remember that not everyone in Poland during that period was a hero. Finding the courage to behave like Senlerowa wasn’t an easy thing to do.

The right-wing government in Poland is willing to ignore several of the less positive sides (from its point of view) of her biography along the way. For example, the fact that she was a left-wing activist – some say extreme left – and a communist from an early age is not exactly a model for imitation in today’s ultranationalist Poland, where the crimes of the communists are compared to those of the Nazis.

A hero but not a saint

Irena Sendlerowa.Credit: REUTERS

Mazzeo researched Sendlerowa and her activities for about two years. She visited archives in Warsaw, Berlin, London, New York and Jerusalem, read about her and things she wrote, and held interviews with “Irena’s children,” after whom the book is named.

Is the author opposed to the Polish attempt to present Sendlerowa as a saint? Mazzeo says she was a hero – a woman of incredible moral and physical courage – and nobody doubts that, but she wasn’t a saint or a martyr. In the final analysis, presenting her as a saint would be a desecration of the genuine complexity and difficulty of the choices she made as a human being. Even righteous people have fears and weaknesses, says Mazzeo. The fact that she was a complex person makes her story stronger, because it means that any one of us, despite fears, weaknesses and emotions, could do the same. In other words, says Mazzeo, you don’t have to be perfect in order to be righteous.

When asked about her weaknesses and her shortcomings, Mazzeo says that Senlerowa’s rescue operation endangered people dear to her – the first being her ill mother, who lived with her. She placed her sickly mother in great danger and concealed these risks from her. She was impetuous and occasionally shortsighted, and she placed the abstract before the concrete, and sometimes was even selfish in her lack of selfishness.

Mazzeo contends that Sendlerowa was a hero because she had such a strong sense of purpose and fairness that by her own example, she was able to convince others around her to be better than they were in other circumstances; together, they were able to do something amazingly decent and courageous.

There is a debate in the research about the precise number of children that she rescued or whose rescue she organized. On the website of Yad Vashem, which recognized her as a Righteous Among the Nations already in 1965, it says that the number is unknown. In Poland, however, she is usually credited with rescuing 2,500 children.

Irena Sendlerowa being recognized as 'Righteous Among the Nations.'Credit: AP

“Sendlerowa and a group of her colleagues, trying to write testimony decades after the war, wanted to record what had happened, and they estimated that the networks they were involved with saved as many as 2,500 children. She did not claim to have done so personally,” says Mazzeo. “One of the things that I wanted to emphasize in my book is that Irena Sendler was just one part of an astonishing network of men and, mostly, women.”

Mazzeo notes that Sendlerowa said that for every child whose rescue she organized, an average of 10 people in Warsaw risked their lives. Without the courage of those who joined her and their willingness to sacrifice their lives, success would have been impossible.

Small details

The new book is the second one that has been published in Israel about Sendlerowa in recent years. “Irena Sendler: Mother of the Children of the Holocaust,” by Anna Mieszkowska, was published in Israel in 2009. It includes a first-person description of Sendlerowa’s arrest by the Gestapo in 1943.

She had both genuine and forged birth certificates and ID cards in her home, as well as a card holder with lists of children and addresses of their various hiding places. “All that was hidden in my bed, which collapsed during the search. Fortunately, the Germans were so busy taking apart the pillows and removing items from the closet that they didn’t notice the broken bed,” she is quoted as saying.

On her way to the Gestapo headquarters she managed to destroy an important list of names that she kept in the pocket of her jacket: “I managed to tear the tell-tale page into little pieces that I tossed from the window of the car that was racing through the streets of Warsaw. Nobody noticed what I did. It was 6 A.M. The Germans were napping. They were tired. I was calm regarding the fate of the children. I didn’t know what fate was awaiting me.”

Her luck continued. After she was interrogated, tortured and sentenced to death, the underground was able to bribe one of the Nazi officers in the prison, and she was released after being declared dead.

When asked about difficulties that she faced during her research, Mazzeo says that the lists of the children who were rescued haven’t been found to this day, which makes it difficult for scholars to get to the bottom of the story. The lists Sendlerowa kept during the war didn’t survive. They were buried and were never found under the ruins in Warsaw.

Another difficulty was that for decades, those who witnessed her actions remained silent, as was customary under the communist regime that ruled Poland until 1989. Mazzeo says that at the end of the Cold War, when it was safer to talk about it, the people themselves were too old, or had already died.

Mazzeo says that one must keep in mind that Sendlerowa told her story at an advanced age. The people who listened edited her words and added their own insights. “She also became conservatively religious later in her life, and did not want to reopen certain parts of her story at the age of 90 – her extramarital affairs, her divorce, her youthful bohemianism,” she says.

Like the rescue operation she led, her personal life was tumultuous. Before the war she married her first husband, Mieczyslaw Sendler, and took his last name. During the war she had an affair with a Jewish friend named Adam Celnikier, who was also married.

After the war ended, she divorced Sendler and married Celnikier (who adopted his nom de guerre, Stefan Zgrzembski), going on to have three children with him. Two of them predeceased her. In 1961 she remarried her first husband, Sendler, but divorced him a decade later.

The book is not short on personal details of this type. “It was important to give a picture of the whole person, since she made herself a public figure,” says Mazzeo. “At the same time I do not judge her harshly for those evasions. I am not sure I would want someone to write a book about all the things I did and thought when I was in my 20s. I think many of us would not prefer that in our 90s.”

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