Every so often, we learn the story of another unheralded hero of the Holocaust. Often these people’s stories are only publicized after their death. When I become cognizant of their exploits I am continually amazed at the bravery of ordinary citizens in the face of extreme danger. It makes me wonder if, given the same circumstances, I would have the courage to put my life on the line as they did. I would hope so, but you never know until the situation arises. One such story appears below.
Irena Krzyzanowska was born on February 10, 1910 in Warsaw, Poland. Her father was a doctor, but he was also a humanitarian. Frequently, he would treat poor patients for free. Sadly, he died when Irena was very young from typhus, which he had caught from one of his patients. Following secondary school Irena attended the University of Warsaw where she studied law and literature. During the war she joined the Polish Socialist Party.
When war broke out Irena was working at the Warsaw Municipal Social Welfare Department. At first, she and several of her colleagues were assisting wounded and sick Polish soldiers to receive medical care that they otherwise could not afford. Often, this involved supplying false documents. Later, Irena also began to provide these to Jews, which, of course, was prohibited by the Germans. Irena’s job status enabled her to freely enter the Warsaw ghetto. You may recall that the Germans had crammed some 400,000 Jews into a small portion of the city and sealed it in November 1940.
The Germans were very concerned that typhus and other communicable diseases, which were rampant in the ghetto, would spread to other parts of the city. Therefore, they allowed Irena and her co-workers special access to the ghetto in order to conduct sanitary inspections. Irena also worked as a plumber/sewer specialist. This special access enabled Irena and others to surreptitiously provide food, clothing and medicines to the inhabitants. Obviously, this was strictly forbidden, and those caught were summarily imprisoned and tortured or executed. In addition, for a time Irena worked as a nurse in a field hospital, where, of course, many Jews were hidden among the patients. One day, while searching for food, she was shot by a German soldier, but she recovered.
Irena became more and more bold. In the summer of 1942, as conditions worsened, Irena and others began smuggling Jews out of the ghetto, particularly children and babies. Her methods were quite inventive. For instance, she hid babies in the bottom of a large tool box that she always carried; she hid small children in a large burlap sack that she kept in her truck; and she kept a large dog in the truck that would continually bark. This not only dissuaded the German soldiers from inspecting the truck too closely, but it also masked any noise made by the babies and small children.
To the extent possible she placed these children in convents, with sympathetic Polish families, orphanages and other charitable institutions. Moreover, she and her group utilized residences of sympathizers as temporary shelters until more permanent locations could be found. The children were given Christian names and even taught Christian prayers in case they were “tested” by the Germans.
According to historian Deborah Dwork, Irena was the “inspiration and prime mover” of this network. The organizational skills necessary to maintain this massive rescue operation right under the noses of the Germans for so many years cannot be overstated. It is estimated that she and her network saved some 2,500 children.
Irena was hoping to be able to reunite these children with their families after the war. Consequently, she kept meticulous records. She made a list of the children’s names, both Jewish and Christian, and where they had been placed and buried it in a large jar in her yard. Alas, after the war she discovered that most of the families had perished in the camps.
Irena was very modest with respect to her heroism. To her, “every child saved with my help is the justification of my existence on this earth and not a title to glory.”
In 1943 Irena was caught by the Gestapo. She was beaten and tortured, but she revealed nothing. The Gestapo marked her for execution, but her German guards were bribed, and she was rescued.
Irena was married three times, twice to the same man – Mieczyslaw Sendler. They were divorced both times. In between she married and divorced Stefan Zgrzembski, by whom she had three children.
Irena was the recipient of numerous awards and citations. Poland awarded her six, including, among others, the Knight’s Cross, two Gold Crosses of Merit, and the Order of the White Eagle, the country’s highest civilian award. Yad Yeshem recognized her as one of the Polish Righteous Among the Nations. Also, in 1991 she was made an honorary citizen of Israel. In 2003 Pope John Paul II sent her a letter praising her accomplishments during the war. She was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 and 2008, but, unfortunately, she was not selected either time. Finally, her story has been the subject of a play, a book and a movie.
Irena passed away on May 12, 2008 at the age of 98. She was an example of the saying that the best revenge against the Nazis is to survive and live a long productive life.