When the Nazis invaded Poland, Warsaw became a place of misery and suffering. Nearly half a million Jewish men, women, and children were herded into a 3.5 kilometer square neighbourhood and prevented from leaving. Families lived on top of each other, averaging 9 people to a room. Epidemics ran rampant, and the entire population was purposely starved with rations tightly controlled with intentional shortages of essentials. It was a charnel house, designed to kill off as many Jews as possible "naturally” while weakening the rest of the population for their eventual forced removal to concentration camps.
Knowing this, what kind of person do you think would willingly walk into this horror? Who would face the disease, misery, and brutality afflicting these people? Maybe you’re picturing someone brave, a soldier, or a brilliant doctor, or a shrewd spy. How about a 29-year-old social worker and nurse? A girl so unassuming the Nazis wouldn’t even notice when she helped slip more than 2,500 people out of that hell and into safety. That was Irena Sendler.
Irena’s story began in Otwock, a town nearby Warsaw where she lived a quiet, peaceful childhood. Raised Christian, her father, Stanisław, was a physician who was known for his strong altruistic spirit. He would often treat poor patients (including Jews and other minorities) free of charge, believing in the necessity of generosity and mercy to those who needed it. Soon, the impoverished made up the majority of his patients, but Stanislaw never complained. Even when an outbreak of Typhus ripped through the Jewish community, he kept treating them until he himself contracted the disease and subsequently passed in 1917. Irena was only seven years old at the time, but her father’s teaching and example had a profound impact in shaping her worldview. Rather than be embittered at losing her father at such a young age, she idolized him and his commitment to helping people of any background or heritage.
You’d think this would be an attitude that would be applauded by society, but sadly we live in an imperfect world. In the early 1900’s in Poland, being an open ally of the Jewish people was painting a target on your back, even before the Nazis arrived. Irene got in all kinds of trouble at school for actions like defacing the "Non-Jewish” identifier on her student card (a racist and exclusionary practice meant to target the Jewish population) and for her activity in various activist groups that agitated for Jewish acceptance. She was suspended for more than a year for her troubles.
After graduation things didn’t get better. She was black balled in the community and despite strong grades, her university gave her a negative recommendation. Irena found her employment opportunities limited as a direct result of work to help and stand by her Jewish neighbours. But she never once expressed doubt or regret. She would later be fond to repeat a lesson her father taught her when she was very young, "You see a man drowning, you must try to save him even if you cannot swim.”
This is a very noble attitude, but also a dangerous one. Especially when living under Nazi occupation.
Irena was working with the Warsaw welfare department when the Nazis invaded and began rounding up Jews, forcing them to wear identifying arm bands, and enforcing blatantly discriminatory laws as a precursor to setting up the ghetto. Almost immediately she went to work subverting the Nazis’ plans for the Jews in the area.
The Nazis issued strict orders that no aid from the Welfare department was to be given to the Jews. No food, money, or medical care. Instead, Irena’s office focused on aiding Polish soldiers. It was here that her work first began.
It started small. Irena would hear of Jews in the area who needed food or medical care and she would draft some papers for some "Polish soldiers” who coincidentally had the exact same needs. She’d funnel the care to those who needed it. Soon, Irena and a few close confidants began creating fictional neighbourhoods. The way welfare assistance was dispersed at the time was from statistics gathered from communities, so Irena would compose lists of names, entire families, out of thin air. These neighbourhoods of phantom people would be issued aid that would instead be used to help Jews in hiding and help underground resistance members survive.
But surely a ploy like that could only last so long, right? What was to keep the German occupation staff from inspecting some of these non-existent families to see exactly where the resources were going? What would keep them at bay? Fear.
Irena, a 4’11” young woman found a way to cow the German bureaucracy. Shrewdly, each family she made up was stricken with the worst of diseases – typhus, cholera, and other contagious, lethal afflictions that were known to spread just like that to nearby people. Somehow, no inspector ever felt like checking in on those families.
But it wasn’t enough, Irena wasn’t content to just get supplies to suffering people, she needed to save them. And to do that, she’d need an audacious plan, nerves of steel, and the grace of God.