Born in 1910 and growing up in a small town, Otwock, near Warsaw, Irena learned much from her Roman Catholic Polish parents, who taught her to respect people from every ethnic background, religion, and social class. Her father, a physician, died when she was seven. He'd contracted typhus while treating patients, many of them Jews, whom his colleagues had refused to treat for fear of becoming ill themselves. As her father was dying, he told his small daughter "If you see someone drowning, you must try to rescue them, even if you cannot swim."
Irena attended Warsaw University, where she studied Polish literature. Pre-war Poland was already persecuting Jewish students with "ghetto benches;" Jewish students had to sit separately from other students both during and after classes. Enraged, Irena openly defied the unfair system and defaced her grade card. She was suspended for three years.
Irena became both a nurse and a social worker, keeping her eyes open to follow the signs of the times. In 1939, when the Germans invaded and conquered Poland, and enforced the "Nazi Ideal," Irena began helping Jews by offering them food and shelter. She gathered people to help her; together they forged over 3,000 false identity papers for Jews so they could hide and escape. Then, in 1940, the horrific Warsaw Ghetto was erected: 450,000 Jews were crammed into an area the size of New York City's Central Park.
Two Polish women formed "Zegota," the Polish Underground organization which would assist Jewish people. They asked Irena to head up the Children's Division. This would be an extremely dangerous undertaking. As of 1941, the Nazis had decreed that giving any kind of assistance to Jews was punishable by death - death not only for the individual but for his/her whole family and household.
Yet the Law did not deter Irena. She said later, "I lost no time in reflecting on the danger, knowing that I and my heart had to be there, had to be part of the rescue." As an employee of the Social Welfare Department, she finagled a special permit to enter the Warsaw Ghetto with other social workers to check for signs of typhus, a deadly disease which the Nazis feared would spread beyond the Ghetto if not detected early. In reality they were there to save Jewish orphans and to convince parents to give them their children to smuggle to safety out of the Ghetto under the noses of the fierce guards.
She and her twenty or so friends had already devised five main means of escape:
- taking children sick or those pretending to be sick out in ambulances;
- taking them out through sewer pipes or other secret underground passages;
- a trolley could carry out children hiding in sacks, trunks, or suitcases;
- taking them out through two buildings adjoining the Ghetto, one of them a Church: they taught Jewish children Catholic prayers so they could pass the Guards' tests.
Irena often took a dog with her. If a child whimpered, she stepped on her dog's paw, the dog yelped and set off the guards' dogs, and the child's whimpers were buried in noise.
Irena was the heart of the rescuers. She inspired them. Although her helpers alternated days, she herself entered the Ghetto daily, for eighteen months, bringing out at least one child a day. She and her network hid the children with Polish families, in Catholic convents, and at the Warsaw Orphanage of the Sisters of the Family of Mary. She made sure that everyone who hid a child promised to return that child to its family after the war.
Only Irena knew where the children were to be found. She kept meticulous notes on thin tissue paper, hidden in two jars buried under an apple tree. These notes listed each child's name, the parents' names, and the names and addresses of those who sheltered them.
An informer turned her in to the Nazi SS. Irena - code name "Jolanta" - was arrested on October 20, 1943, and sent to the notorious Piawiak prison. She was questioned and tortured relentlessly. Her legs and feet were fractured. But she refused to give up the names and addresses of her co-workers in Zegota. Instead she fed her interrogators the false information that the co-conspirators had devised together in case any of them were captured. She was sentenced to death. But members of Zegota bribed her executioner. He helped her escape and told the SS that she was dead. Irena later read the news of her death on posters plastered throughout the city. Now it was time for her to go into the same sort of hiding as her Jewish children endured.
After the war, Irena tried to reunite the Jewish children with their parents. Unfortunately most of those parents had died at the Treblinka death camp. She then involved herself in many social causes, founding orphanages and homes for the aged and for prostitutes. But her work and the work of Zegota during the war went unnoticed. In spite of those 2500 saved children! She continued to meet with many of those children, and many considered her another mother.
Then, in 1999, in Unionville, Kansas, a history teacher, Norm Conard, began a High School National History Day project. He mentioned that he'd seen a short reference to an "Irena Sendler," a female Schindler, in a 1994 issue of "US News and World Report," in an article entitled "Other Schindlers." Four girls eagerly volunteered to research Irena; what they found out about her was so inspiring that eventually they wrote a play about her life, "Life In A Jar."
For, amazingly, the students discovered that Irena was still alive, living with relatives in Warsaw. Between exchanging letters with her, and finally traveling to Poland to meet her, they amassed over 4,000 pages of primary material and research on her life and the work of Zegota. Their play, "Life In A Jar," has now been performed extensively throughout North America, aiding Holocaust awareness, and throughout the world. At each performance, the performers collect funds for Polish rescuers. Poland, challenged and invigorated by the play and the publicity, began to rediscover its war history and publicly honor heroes like Irena Sendler. Unfortunately by the time the honors began to arrive, she was the only living member of Zegota.
Irena was not impressed by her own deeds. "Heroes do extraordinary things," she said. "What I did was not an extraordinary thing. It was normal....I continue to have pangs of conscience that I did so little." But she was grateful for the honor given to her co-workers, continually reminding those who praised her that she did not work alone, she was aided by many others.
Irena Sendler lived well into her nineties, dying in 2008. She had lived to see war after war, see the fall of the Twin Towers. She had lived to see the "Life in A Jar" project present awards to other projects which teach history, and foster peace, tolerance, and understanding. In 2009, a year after her death, the original play was developed into a Hallmark Movie for T.V., entitled "The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler," starring Anna Paquin and Marcia Gay Harden (This is available on DVD at the "Life In A Jar" website.) Shortly before she died, she told her girls from Kansas how much she loved them for spreading those ideals which she had learned first from her parents. By the end of her life, her attitude was a blend of realism, sorrow, and hope. She said,
"After World War II, it seemed that humanity understood something, and nothing like that would happen again. Humanity has understood nothing. Religious, tribal, national wars continue. The world continues to be in a sea of blood. The world can be better if there's love, tolerance, and humility."
Why is the world still a sea of blood? Why have so many people - even Christians - in so many different nations failed to do the right thing, the loving thing, because they feared being shamed or put to death by the Establishment? How do we, as Christians, understand a Catholic woman and her friends so in love with humanity that they literally risked death to aid them? The answer comes by seeking to understand Jesus, who, we believe, fearlessly died to aid us, to save us, - out of supreme love. Jesus proved something to us by his death on a cross and his resurrection: the power and deathlessness of God. Jesus refused to be dominated by death, or by fear of death.
In fact, Jesus proved to us that "God has nothing to do with death at all, is not involved in it, is not moved by it, is not frightened by it. It is not a serious blip on God's radar screen....Jesus 'assumed' death into life, and thus rendered it non-toxic forever.....Jesus' death and resurrection is God's way of proving that he is able and willing to hold humans in being through death, starting here and now....We can start to trust that God will hold us in being through death." (James Alison, in "Jesus the Forgiving Victim: Listening For the Unheard Voice.")
To be a Christian is to trust that God carries us through death into eternal life. So- why should we fear death? Should fear of death be the deciding factor when we're faced with man's massive inhumanity to man? Fear of death can twist us so that we no longer have hearts of flesh, only hearts of stone. Fear says "Why bother to stand up for justice? You'll only be killed. There doesn't seem to be much of a project going, so why bother to stand up and make cultural change, paying a price now so that others will see a benefit later." (Alison)
If we truly believe in life past death, we can buy into, begin to understand, God's view of reality. Each one of us is only part of a project which is much bigger, with far more repercussions, than we can imagine: that's the humble posture of an Irena Sendler. "You are part of a project that is being fulfilled beyond the scope of your life, and that participation is imperishable." (Alison). Justice and mercy and love are the Creator's plan, worth risking our lives to be a part of. With courageous hearts like this female Schindler, each of us can play a part in the plans of God's heart, which will last from age to age. We can help to stop the plans of the Hitlers who think they can stand in the way of God. Irena said,
"Every child saved with my help and the help of all the wonderful secret messengers...is the justification of my existence on this earth, and not a title to glory."