Irena Sendler was born to catholic parents in Poland in 1910. She grew in a Jewish town where her father treated Jewish patients while other doctors refused to help. As a young woman she was furios at the constant discrimination against her Jewish friends: at university she publicly denounced segregation in classrooms.

Supported by her socialist ideas, she assisted Jewish families in Warsaw and fought antisemitism in Europe. In September 1939 Nazi Germany invaded Poland, bringing laws against Jewish people. In 1940 Hitler obliged Jewish people to live in just one square mile of land in Warsaw, bordered by high walls and under constant surveillance.

Families living in this Warsaw Ghetto starved and became sick because an epidemy of typhus had broken out. At first Sendler and her friends tried to support with medical resources, but soon she understood that to help these people survive she needed to help them escape.

She developed a campaign of rescue missions: children were hidden in dirty laundry, packed into boxes on cargo trains or in briefcases or coffins. Bigger children escaped through the church and the courthouse that were on the border of the ghetto. Children were then taken to safe houses and they were given new documents. To keep track of every child, Sendler wrote the children’s identity on cigarette paper and stored them in glass jars. This fact could be punished with death.

La Sendler nella sua uniforme da infermiera – vigilia di Natale del 1944

In 1942 Gestapo started to take Jews from the ghetto into concentration camps: Sendler intensified her activity with the help of a resistance group called Zegota. On October 20th the Gestapo entered Sendler’s apartament and arrested her for aiding Jews throughout the country. Before her arrest she had given her friend Janina the jars containing the names of the Jewish children. Irena was sentenced to execution on January 19th 1944, but she was saved because Zegota paid 100.000$ for her release. Remaining in hiding, she continued her activities against the Nazis until the end of the war in 1945.

After the war she met the children she had helped and remained in contact with many of them for the rest of her life. Sendler has always remained hesitant to accept praise for her actions, remarking “I have qualms of conscience that I did so little” and “A person must be rescued when drowning, regardless of religion and nationality” .

Emanuele Trevisani