Elzbieta Ficowska was just five months old when she was placed in a carpenter’s box and smuggled out of the Warsaw Ghetto. She was placed with a Polish family on the “Aryan” side of the wall, and the young woman who carried her out of the Ghetto added tiny little Elzbieta’s name, parents’ names and new address to a piece of tissue paper, on which were written the details of other children she had smuggled out. The jar was later buried under an apple tree in the back yard of a friend’s home.

How could one person save 2,500 children? The young woman was 29-year-old Irena Sendler, a Polish Catholic social worker who saved 2,500 Jewish children from the Nazis. Unlike the names in the jar, which were unearthed soon after the Nazis’ defeat, Irena’s story and that of her fellow rescuers remained buried for nearly sixty years. That began to change in 1999, when four students at rural Uniontown High School in Kansas began researching possible projects for the National History Day competition. The students, Megan Stewart, Elizabeth Cambers, Jessica Shelton and Sabrina Coons, were intrigued by a sentence their teacher, Norman Conrad, showed them in an article from US News and World Report, which stated simply, “Irena Sendler saved 2,500 children from the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942–43.”

Both teacher and students were convinced that it must have been a typo. How could one person save 2,500 children from the walled and heavily guarded Ghetto? They assumed that the article had meant to say 250.

“When you look at her,” Conrad told an interviewer, “you can’t imagine how she could walk past the Nazi guards, carrying a child in a gunny sack. How did she do it?”

Irena Sendler (Sendlerowa) was just 4′11″ tall, her lively, intelligent black eyes set in a round, smiling face. She was beautiful, and in taped interviews one can see a warm yet quietly determined individual. Still, her appearance more closely resembled a favorite doll than a fearless resistance leader. How did she find the courage to smuggle out living, breathing (and sometimes crying) Jewish children past vicious, heavily armed guards?

It was a question that came up early on in the students’ research, as they began to realize that there had been no typo in the original article—Irena had indeed saved 2,500 children. Yet the students never expected to be able to ask Irena that question. They assumed that Irena, who was born in 1910 and had endured torture at the hands of the Gestapo during the war, must have passed away. They wanted to know where she was buried. They were thrilled to discover that she was still alive!

The girls, who by that time had written a ten-minute play, Life in a Jar, depicting Irena’s rescue efforts, decided to write to Irena, who was living with relatives in a tiny apartment in Warsaw. They mentioned their play, which had won the state history contest and would be performed at the National History Day competition. They asked for more details about her life, and they asked: where did she find the courage?

If a man is drowning, one must help him “My parents taught me,” Irena wrote back, “that if a man is drowning, it is irrelevant what is his religion or nationality. One must help him.”

Irena was born in Warsaw on February 15, 1910, but spent most of her youth in Otwock, a town with a vibrant Jewish community. At the end of World War I a typhus epidemic broke out, and Irena’s father, Dr. Stanislaw Krzyzanowski, devoted himself to caring for impoverished Jews suffering from the disease. He contracted typhus from his patients and passed away. Irena was just seven years old. She and her mother eventually returned to Warsaw, where Irena completed school and enrolled in Warsaw University.

Irena posing as a nurse to enter the ghetto
Irena posing as a nurse to enter the ghetto

In those days, there were strict rules dictating the separation of Jewish and non-Jewish students, who were not allowed to sit together in or out of class. Irena refused to obey these rules, and was suspended for one year. She managed to complete her studies, and by September 1939, when the Nazis invaded Poland, she was a social worker employed by the Warsaw Welfare Department.

Those who knew her say that it was always Irena’s nature to help. Though she lost her father at an early age, his dedication to others—reinforced by her mother’s example and words—made a deep impression on her. Though still young, she already had a history of sacrifice on behalf of others, and of defying rising anti-Semitism to reach out to and stand up for Jews.

Almost as soon as the Nazi occupation began, Irena began making forged documents for Jewish friends. She also offered food and shelter to the increasingly persecuted Jewish population. Then, in 1940, she witnessed the imprisonment of nearly 500,000 Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto—an area the size of New York’s Central Park. She continued making false documents for those who escaped or had gone into hiding and avoided the Ghetto. Between 1939 and 1942 Irena, with the assistance of a few trusted friends, forged over 3,000 documents to save Jewish families.

In the fall of 1942 two Polish women, Zofia Kossak-Szczucka and Wanda Krahelska-Filipowicz, founded Zegota—the Council for Aid to Jews in Occupied Poland, a branch of the Polish underground. The members of Zegota asked Irena to head the Children’s Department. She readily agreed. “I lost no time in reflecting [on the danger],” she later explained, “knowing that I and my heart had to be there, had to be a part of the rescue.”

With the assistance of other social workers, as many as 25 at one time, Irena began rescuing the children of the Ghetto. By that time, she was an administrator in the Welfare Department. Taking advantage of both her official position and the Germans’ paranoia of germs, she would go into the Ghetto under the ruse of wanting to stop the spread of disease beyond the ghetto walls. Officially, she was examining Jews for signs of contagious diseases. In reality, she was looking for children to save.

At first, Irena and her helpers took orphans living on the streets of the Ghetto. Later, she would meet with parents and ask them to let her take their children out.

Irena always made it clear to the families, convents and orphanages who took in children that these children were to be returned to their families after the war. She kept her detailed lists for this reason—so that families could be reunited.

There were two common routes used to smuggle the children out, through two buildings that straddled the border between the Ghetto and the rest of Warsaw. One building was an old courthouse, the other was a church. Children old enough to be taught some basic Catholic prayers would be sneaked into the church from the Jewish side. Once inside, they would remove their yellow stars and take on their new identities as Polish Catholic children. They would exit through the front door of the church, which was guarded by Nazi soldiers who questioned them when they came out. The Nazis used various tricks to try to catch Jews escaping this way. Irena and her helpers trained the children well—they were never caught coming out of the church with Jewish children.

Younger children could not be rescued through the buildings. Instead, Irena would place them in gunny sacks or toolboxes and carry them out of the Ghetto, or she would hide them under potatoes in a cart. Once, she took a child out concealed in a coffin. On other occasions, she was able to legally take seriously ill children out of the Ghetto in an ambulance. At other times, the ambulance was used to conceal healthy children. She had the assistance of the ambulance driver and of a dog. When the children would start to whimper, and she feared detection, she would hit her dog on his paw, and he would begin to bark. This set off a chain reaction among the Nazis’ dogs, and chaos would erupt. At that point, the Nazis would let her pass.

Once on the other side, she would take the children to the home of her friends, the Piotrowski family, where the children would change their clothing, and have a chance to eat and rest after their dangerous journey. It was also at the Piotrowski home that Irena would secretly bury her lists of names, under an apple tree in their backyard. The Piotrowskis lived across the street from a German barrack. Oftentimes the children would also stay by another friend, Maria Kukulska, until they could be safely moved to what would be their home for the remainder of the war.

The people who helped Irena, twenty-four women and one man, all took tremendous risks. There were even ten who alternated entering the Ghetto with her, but it was Irena herself who entered the Ghetto day after day for eighteen months—and walked out each time with a child. Her life was in constant danger. Ultimately, the Nazis began to suspect her. She changed her address numerous times, but continued her work. Her careful list-making almost betrayed her.

“The names of the saved children, I wrote down on thin tissue paper. There were two identical lists in two bottles,” recalled Irena. “When I once had the list at home, that same night the Gestapo arrived. Fortunately, one of my liaison girls demonstrated her presence of mind and hid the list in her underwear. After that, for safety reasons, I never kept the lists at home.”

Tragically, Irena was arrested by the Germans on October 20, 1943—five months after the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto. Her address had been revealed by an informer.

Her address had been revealed by an informerIrena was tortured and beaten for several days; one leg and one foot were fractured. She refused to reveal the whereabouts of the children, or the names of anyone in the Resistance. She was scheduled to be executed, but members of Zegota found out and bribed a guard to instead leave her in the woods, where they found and rescued her. Her name was printed on public lists of those who had been shot by the Gestapo, and she spent the rest of the war in hiding.

After the war, she worked to track down the children and reunite them with relatives, but nearly all of them were by then orphans. Copies were made of the lists and given to officers of Zegota, who helped Irena search, but few relatives were ever found. Only one percent of the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto survived the war.

The Communists in Poland branded Irena a subversive for her work with Zegota, and she was largely unknown and unappreciated except among the survivors themselves. The children kept in touch with her over the years. Many, including Elzbieta, considered her a mother figure and would visit her regularly. It was Irena to whom they would turn when they needed the advice or simply the love of a parent. They were instrumental in having her recognized by Yad Vashem, twice. She was given the distinction of Righteous Gentile in 1965, and a tree was planted in her honor in 1983. Irena traveled to Israel for the tree planting, where she reunited with some of the children she’d saved, and enjoyed a visit to an elementary school in Tel Aviv. She even learned some Hebrew in preparation for the trip, but was so emotional that she relied on a translator in the end.

Irena had also received support from the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous in New York City.

Irena in 2007
Irena in 2007

Irena would have likely remained unknown to most of the world if not for the students from Kansas. After winning the state history competition in early 2000, they began performing the play in communities and schools around Kansas, and the media began to pick up on the story of this “female Schindler.” Uniontown proclaimed an Irena Sendler Day, and other towns followed suit.

It was around this time that two very significant things happened—for both them and Irena. They found out not only that Irena was alive and how to write to her; they also found a university student fluent in Polish who agreed to translate Irena’s letters to them. Then, in January 2001, they performed the play in Kansas City, where a local businessman suggested that they should meet Irena. They said that they were planning it and saving money. He asked them, “How old is she now?” When they answered that she was already 91, he used his contacts to raise the money—in just one day—for the students and their teacher, Norman Conrad, to fly to Poland to meet Irena. Norman’s wife and several students’ parents joined the trip.

You have changed the worldIn Poland the students visited Irena, performed the play and met with government officials. National and international media covered their visit, breaking nearly sixty years of silence. That first visit took place in May 2001, and since then, Holocaust education in Poland has changed dramatically. Other Polish rescuers came forward with their stories. The students have made five trips to Poland, meeting with Irena each time and performing for schools and community organizations. Thanks in large part to their efforts to spread the word about Irena’s work, Irena was given numerous awards—including the Order of the White Eagle, Poland’s highest honor. In 2003 she won the Jan Karski award for Valor and Courage, having been nominated by the students and Norman Conrad, and by Stefanie Seltzer, president of the World Federation of Jewish Survivors of the Holocaust. In 2007, she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. In April 2009, the Audrey Hepburn Foundation posthumously awarded Irena Sendler its 2009 Humanitarian Award.

Yet it was not for her own sake that Irena was so pleased with the recognition. Rather, it was the fact that the work of Zegota was finally being recognized, and even more, for the way in which hearing about Zegota has changed Polish perceptions of their own history. By giving Poles a hero, the students have made it possible to discuss both the good and the evil of those years. Irena’s story, the play, and some of the 4,000 pages of primary source material collected by the students about Irena are being used in schools and colleges in Poland and America. And for the past six years, the Irena Sendler Award has been encouraging and awarding projects aimed at teaching tolerance. Each year, an outstanding teacher in America and in Poland are chosen.

Early on, Irena had written to them, “My emotion is being shadowed by the fact that my co-workers have all passed on, and these honors fall to me. I can’t find words to thank you, for my own country and the world to know of the bravery of the rescuers . . . Before the day you had written Life in a Jar, the world did not know our story; your performance and work is continuing the effort I started over fifty years ago.”

Irena’s last words to the students, on May 3, 2008, were, “You have changed Poland, you have changed the United States, you have changed the world. I love you very, very much.”

Irena passed away on May 12, 2008, and was interred in Warsaw’s Powazki cemetery—a place reserved for the elite among Poland’s artists, writers, scholars and war heroes. Visitors to Life in a Jar’s website report that there among the actresses, Nobel laureates, and other heroes, the grave with the most candles is Irena’s.