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