She was arrested at the age of 33 and sentenced to death. Posters proclaiming her execution were circulated around her city. She read them with her own eyes is celebrated as a hero today, but during WWII she was a threat to the Nazis. As an able-bodied Gentile, she wasn’t an immediate target of the Nazis but what she did made her one: She used her position of power and influence as a social worker to sneak children out of the Warsaw Ghetto and hide them with families. Recognizing the importance of family and personal identity, after changing the children’s names, she wrote their real names on paper and placed them in a jar that she buried for safety until the war was over.
Tragically, however, most of the parents of the 2,500 children Irena and her friends saved were murdered.
Irena couldn’t save everyone, but the fact that she couldn’t save all didn’t negate her responsibility to save some. And so, her actions reflect the words of Helen Keller who said, “I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something that I can do.”
With courage, Irena sacrificed much to save vulnerable children. In fact, she was eventually caught by the Nazis, arrested, tortured, and sentenced to death.
It has been said that what goes around, comes around. After Irena spent years rescuing people, when she herself was sentenced to death, her activist colleagues rescued her—they bribed her executioner. Irena was thus secretly released and ultimately saw the poster proclaiming her murder that never was.
For most of her life, Irena’s story was largely unknown to the world. It wasn’t until the late 1990s when a group of high school students in Kansas saw a passing reference to a woman who saved children from the Holocaust and began to research further into this woman called “Irena Sendler” (her shortened last name).
In 2007, Irena was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, but she lost—to Al Gore. In a seeming injustice, that a person who educated about man-made climate change would win over someone who successfully saved lives from a man-made human extermination system, it’s important to remember that Irena didn’t do what she did for reward. Rather, she did it because it was right, because she loved her neighbors, and because she did unto others what she would have had done unto herself.
The classroom motto for the students who made Irena’s story famous was “He who changes one person, changes the world entire.”
Irena lived that sentiment by doing great good. Will we?