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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Women in History: Nancy Wake

Nancy Wake was born in New Zealand in 1912, and just a few months before her second birthday, her family moved to Sydney, Australia, where she grew up.

When she was sixteen years old, Nancy left home and got a job as a nurse until she lleft the country for New York, then London where she trained in journalism, before moving to Paris where she worked as a journalist in the 1930s, writing a great deal about the rise of fascism and the horrors of anti-semitism in Nazi Germany. She married and moved to Marseilles in 1939. 

When France surrendered to Germany in 1940, Nancy worked as an ambulance driver in the war. She and her husband joined the French Resistance, for whom she worked as a courier before working to help both Jewish people and Allied servicemen to escape. She made several attempts of her own to escape, having fled Marseilles and even being imprisoned for attempting to leave the country unlawfully.

By the time Nancy did manage to escape to Spain via the Pyrenees Mountains, she was one of the Nazi’s “most wanted” secret agents. It was the Germans who gave her the name ‘The White Mouse’ in reference to her ability to evade capture. 

Once out of France, Nancy made her way to England where she received training in Special Operations. Nancy returned to France in 1944, tasked with helping the French Resistance organise and prepare for D-Day. She organised parachute drops of arms and supplies, and actually experienced combat against German troops. 

It wasn’t until after the liberation of France that Nancy learned that the Gestapo had killed her husband in 1943. His death was something she never got over, as she held herself responsible because he would not betray her. She finished her time with the Resistance in 1944, and returned to Special Operations in Paris and then London. 

After the war she received medals and, in later years, honours from Britain, France and the USA for her service and bravery. 

On her return to Australia she tried to enter politics more than once, but her attempts to win a seat in Parliament were unsuccessful. Restless and unfulfilled, Nancy travelled to England in 1957 and married again, returning to Australia with her husband. 

Nancy Wake published her autobiography, ‘The White Mouse’ in 1985. 

After her husband’s death in 1997, Nancy sold her medals to provide for herself. She went back to England in 2001 and spent the rest of her life there. She died in August, 2011, and her ashes were scattered near Verneix in central France. 

I admire Nancy Wake for her gutsy attitude, her opposition to injustice and her total commitment to a cause. She is a woman in history whom others can rightly consider a most inspiring role model.