On 15th February 1910 Irena Krzyżanowska was born. Irena’s father died when she was 7 after he contracted typhus when he infected treated patients who other doctors refused to treat. Many of the patients Irena’s father treated were Jews because of this leaders of the Jewish community offered to help pay for Irena’s education which led to her studying Polish Literature at Warsaw University. In 1931 Irena married Mieczyslaw Sendler.
When the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939 Irena started to help the Jews. Between herself and a group of helper’s Irena managed to create of 3,000 false documents to help Jewish families. Irena did this even though she knew that if she was caught she would be killed. In 1943 Irena became the head of the children’s section of the Żegota: a secret organisation helping Jews in Nazi occupied Poland. Irena worked for social welfare in Poland so she was allowed to go into the Ghetto to check for signs of Typhus.
It was not long before Irena and her co-workers started to smuggle children out of the ghetto. They would use the preface of investigating Typhus outbreaks. Once the children were rescued they were placed with Polish families or in Roman Catholic orphanages. In this time Irena managed to smuggle about 2,500 children out of the ghettos.
However Irena was caught by the Gestapo and was tortured then sentenced to be executed. On the way to her execution members of the Żegota bribed officers to release her. They did but Irena’s name was still on the list of those executed so she had to live in hiding for the remainder of the war. But this didn’t stop her and she continued her work.
After the war Irena and her colleagues gave jars containing all the names of the children they rescued to the Żegota. The Central Committee of Polish Jews set out the task to try and reunite the families. But they soon found out that almost all of the parents of the children rescued were dead or missing.
In 1947 Irena got divorced and remarried to Stefan Zgrzembski. Stefan and Irena had three children, Janina, Andrzej and Adam, but they got divorced in 1959. In the 1960’s Irena married Mieczyslaw but they got divorced once more.
Irena died on the 12 May 2008 in Warsaw aged 98.
Irena received numerous awards including:
- Righteous Among the Nations
- Commander’s Cross
- Personal letter praising her wartime efforts by Pope John Paul II
- Jan Karski Award
- Order of the Smile
- Nominated for a Nobel Prize
- Audrey Hepburn Humanitarian Award