Women in History: Irina Sendler

Irina Sendler (also called Irina Sendlerowa) was born in Warsaw in 1910. Her father was a doctor who treated the very poor at no charge, and who instilled his strongly Humanitarian values in his daughter. 

After finishing school, Irina studied law and literature  at the University of Warsaw. She opposed the practice of discrimination against the poor and the a Jewish people, and joined both the Union of Polish Democratic Youth and the Socialist Party, earning a reputation for being both a Communist and sympathetic to Jews that kept her from finding employment as a teacher throughout the 1930s. Instead, she took up a role as a social worker which exposed her to the most extreme poverty in and around Warsaw. She worked closely with mothers and children, and published articles about the conditions in which disadvantaged women were living.

When Germany invaded Poland on September 1st, 1939, the division in which Sendler was working was prohibited from working with Jewish people, and began working with sick and wounded a Polish soldiers. Irons and her colleagues began to issue false medical documents to help the soldiers and their families access welfare, a practice which she extended to Jewish families without telling her colleagues she was doing so. 

The Jewish people were restricted to one small area of the city which became known as the Warsaw ghetto, which was closed off to general access in 1940. Sendler and her colleagues gained entry on the proviso of checking for infectious diseases such as Typhus. Against orders, they smuggled in medications, food, sanitary supplies and other necessities. Over time, this extended to smuggling out babies and small children by various means, including carrying them in their medical bags. 

The children were sent to Polish families, Catholic orphanages and convents, and other orphanages. A Christian institution offered the best protection for the children, who were given Christian names and taught Christian prayers and religion once placed there. Sendler kept detailed records, though, in the hope of eventually reuniting children with their families.

Obviously, this work put Sendler and her colleagues at great personal risk, as helping Jews carried the death penalty.  The degree of danger increased when the ghetto was officially dismantled by Germany in 1942, with orders for its residents were collected in groups and sent to extermination camps. Sendler and her colleagues helped as many adults and adolescents to escape to temporary emergency housing as they could. 

On October 18, 1943, Irina was arrested, tortured for information which she refused to divulge, and then imprisoned in Pawiak. She was further interrogated on later dates, and then sent elsewhere for execution, only escaping this fate because her guards had been bribed. She resumed her work under an assumed name, and tried to remain in hiding as much as she could. 

In 1944, the Polish resistance engaged in the Warsaw Uprising, during which Irina worked as a nurse in a field hospital. When that hospital ran out of money and supplies, Irina took the initiative and hitchhiked to Lublin to seek assistance from the communists who were in control of the city. 

After the war, the hospital in which Irina worked was transformed into the Warsaw Children’s Home. Sendler and her colleagues gave all the names and family details of the children they had saved to the Central Committee of Polish Jews with the aim of reuniting the families, but most of the parents had been killed during the Holocaust, so this only had limited success. 

Irina Sendler received numerous decorations and honours for her service and bravery in the years after the war, both in Poland and from other countries and international bodies. 

The grave of Irena Sendler in Powązki cemetery
Image: Jake from Manchester, UK via Wikimedia Common

Sendler continued to work for the wellbeing and care of women and children. She also remained active in the Communist party, although her relationship with the party was not always a harmonious one. She taught until the age of 73, when she retired, remaining in Warsaw for the rest of her life. After her death on May 2nd, 2008, Irina Sendler was buried in the Powazki Cemetery in Warsaw. 

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Exhibiting the Courage to Care

Today I was privileged to accompany 45 students on a visit to the Courage to Care exhibition in Portland.

We heard the personal story of a man named Harry, a Holocaust survivor from Poland. Harry’s story was incredibly powerful. So were the tears he shed while telling it. You couldn’t help but be moved by this first-hand account of the terrible things that were done during World War II. 

Courage to Care exists because they are passionate about telling many, many stories just like Harry’s. Given that we are celebrating the 70th anniversary of the end of the war, they know that it won’t be long before there are no survivors left to tell their stories to the generations that follow them. 

  

The message is not just about the Holocaust. It’s a message against any form of prejudice, hatred, intolerance or bullying. Differences between people are only ever superficial; underneath our skin, we’re all the same. 

Everyone who visits the exhibition is encouraged to be “Upstanders, not Bystanders”. It’s hard to leave without experiencing the conviction that you will never accept or condone discrimination again.

I cried as Harry told his story, not just for Harry but for every family who lived through the same thing. I cried for parents who lost children, children who lost parents, and siblings who lost each other.  

I cried again when I read the stories of two families in Rotterdam who worked with the Dutch Resistance and help save Jewish people from the Nazis. They almost certainly knew my grandfather, who worked for the Dutch Reaistance throughout the war, and was personally hunted by the Nazis as a result. 

   

My Opa told me stories about his experiences during the war when I was a young girl reading books like ‘The Hiding Place’ and The Diary of Anne Frank’. They were always very serious and quite emotional conversations. It was very important to him that I understood how important it is to oppose evil and to stand against hatred.

He told me more of his story when I was a little older and studying history. I guess he thought I could handle more of the horrible truth then. It certainly made my studies more personally relevant.

 It also explained why he would leave the room or turn the TV off whenever there was a scene where German soldiers marched or where Hitler addressed the crowd. I don’t know why I hadn’t made that connection before, but after that, I could not watch those scenes without thinking about how powerfully real and haunting it still was for him and, doubtless, everyone else who had survived it. I was very privileged today to meet Harry, to shake his hand and talk with him. I told him about my grandfather and the connection with the stories displayed in the exhibition, and cried again. He hugged me and we shed tears together.

Honestly, I’ve never been such a sook in public. The whole experience was very moving, and not just because it made me think about my grandfather. 

I saw the students responding in a similarly emotional way. They spoke up about bullying, booing at footballers, and the way different ethnic groups in Australia are perceived and treated. One of my students, a young man who generally seems to have not a care in the world, had tears in his eyes, just like I did. 

I saw the light in the eyes of the Courage to Care members as they were inspired by the responses of the young people in front of them. The conversations were serious and sombre. 

Every student took a wristband and put it on immediately, proud to be an Upstander. 

There is hope yet for our nation and our world. Young or old, we can make a stand against hatred and vilification.

All that is needed is the courage to care and to stand up for what is right.