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How one person saved over 2,000 children from the Nazis - Iseult Gillespie

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In 1943, Irena Sendler and Janina Grabowska froze when they heard Gestapo pounding on the front door. Knowing she was minutes from arrest, Irena tossed Janina her most dangerous possession: a glass jar containing the names of over 2,000 Jewish children she’d smuggled to safety from the Warsaw Ghetto. Who was this courageous woman? Iseult Gillespie details the life and legacy of Irena Sendler.

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Meet The Creators

  • Educator Iseult Gillespie
  • Director Chloé Gérard
  • Narrator Bethany Cutmore-Scott
  • Music Salil Bhayani
  • Sound Designer cAMP Studio, Spencer Ward
  • Director of Production Gerta Xhelo
  • Editorial Director Alex Rosenthal
  • Producer Bethany Cutmore-Scott
  • Editorial Producer Dan Kwartler
  • Fact-Checker Eden Girma
  • See more creators
Additional Resources for you to Explore
Born in Warsaw in 1910, Irena Sendler grew up in a progressive Catholic family. You can learn more about her life and work at this website. At the time, Jewish communities faced discrimination and anti-Semitism. For a history of Jewish communities in Poland, click here.

Sendler’s father was a staunch socialist, who treated Jewish communities for typhus when his Christian colleagues refused. He contracted the disease in 1917; and died when Sendler was seven. She inherited his defiant spirit: as a law student at the University of Warsaw, Sendler denounced segregation and defaced her Aryan identity card. She was suspended for troublemaking. 

Unfazed, Sendler preferred her radical circles at the Polish Free University, where she joined the Socialist Party and befriended a group of fierce social workers. Among them were Irena Scultz, Jadwiga Dencha, and Jadwiga Piowtrowska – the women who would become her closest friends. Inspired, Sendler switched her major to social work and began working with impoverished and unwed mothers. You can read more about Sendler and her social work here.

In September 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland. After weeks of devastating air raids, Warsaw surrendered. With Nazi occupation came new laws that eroded Jewish rights. This article explores the German occupation in Poland.

But in 1940, Hitler announced that the entire Jewish population of Warsaw was to be forced into a designated space. You can find more information about the Warsaw Ghetto here. Covering just over a square mile of land, the Warsaw Ghetto imprisoned hundreds of thousands of Jews. For a history of the Warsaw Ghetto, click here. This book provides a firsthand account of life in the Ghetto

Appalled, Sendler and her colleagues secured passes to the ghetto, on the pretense of checking for typhus outbreaks. By pretending that children were dangerously ill, Sendler initially had permission to take them to hospital. Soon, children were also being hidden in bundles of dirty laundry; carried out in coffins, toolboxes and briefcases; or smuggled through escape routes. They were brought to safe houses across the city and given new names, before being transferred to orphanages, convents and foster families across Poland. You can find stories of those who were forced into the Warsaw Ghetto here, here, and here.

In July 1942, the Nazis began evacuating the ghetto and transporting to Treblinka concentration camps. A history of Treblinka can be found here; today it is a memorial museum.

Knowing that they would not return, Sendler worked with new urgency, even smuggling Adam into hiding. But her operation was running out of money.

Help came in the form of another underground Polish network called Zegota. In exchange for information, they stashed money in local postboxes for Sendler. By January 1943, over a thousand children were on Sendler’s lists. But the Gestapo were closing in on the Polish resistance.

On October 19, 1943, Sendler and Janka Grabowska were working on their records, when the Gestapo pounded on the door. For months, Sendler was tortured in prison. She betrayed no information - but on January 20, 1944, she was sentenced to death. She was rescued at the last moment by a German officer, whom Zegota had paid to save her. She assumed a new identity with the help of Zegota, and spent the remainder of the war in hiding.

With the defeat of Germany in 1945, Sendler’s work was far from over. In the aftermath of the war, she dedicated herself to reconnecting with the children she had helped to escape. Few of them had surviving family, but Sendler remained in contact with many for the rest of her life.

She married Adam in 1947, and the couple had three children. But they continued to experience harassment from Poland’s new Communist government, who were eager to stamp out the wartime resistance networks. For this reason, Sendler’s story remained buried for many years, and she was not recognized for her actions until much later in life. Looking back at the war, she rejected the idea that she was a hero. She stated: “I continue to have qualms of conscience that I did so little.”

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About TED-Ed Animations

TED-Ed Animations feature the words and ideas of educators brought to life by professional animators. Are you an educator or animator interested in creating a TED-Ed Animation? Nominate yourself here »

Meet The Creators

  • Educator Iseult Gillespie
  • Director Chloé Gérard
  • Narrator Bethany Cutmore-Scott
  • Music Salil Bhayani
  • Sound Designer cAMP Studio, Spencer Ward
  • Director of Production Gerta Xhelo
  • Editorial Director Alex Rosenthal
  • Producer Bethany Cutmore-Scott
  • Editorial Producer Dan Kwartler
  • Fact-Checker Eden Girma
  • See more creators