From the ghetto of Warsaw during the German invasion of Poland, thousands of Jewish mothers made the unthinkable torturous decision to allow young Gentile women to smuggle their children out of the ghetto, affording those children what was more than likely their only chance to live.
Irene Sendler: In The Name of Their Mothers is the title of a 2011 PBS documentary directed and produced by Mary Skinner of 2B Production detailing the true story of a group of young Polish women, most barely out of their teens, who smuggled thousands of Jewish children out of the WWII Warsaw ghetto to safety. A testament to the power of many people, who in perhaps the darkest time in history, had the moral courage to act on behalf of infants and children despite the certainty of torture and death should their actions be discovered. All this despite knowing that more than likely - which is indeed what happened - that most of these children's mothers (and fathers) would be dead by war's end.
Irena Sendler and the others were silent about their humanitarian conspiracy for decades, however the documentary presents the final interviews given by Irena before her death at age 98 in 2008 along with stories from some of the children, now adults, that they rescued.
Irena Sendler was born into a Roman Catholic family in Otweock, a town 15 miles southeast of Warsaw, in 1910. Her father, a physician and a Polish Socialist, died of typhus in 1917. After her father's death, Jewish community leaders stepped forward offering to help pay for Irena's education.
While studying at Warsaw University Sendler joined the Socialist party and took part in public protests which earned her a three year suspension from university. By the time Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Irena was living in Warsaw and was the senior administrator for the Warsaw Social Welfare Department.
One of the services provided by Sendler's Social Welfare Department was a series of canteens in every district of the city. The canteens provided meals, financial aid and the like for the elderly, poor, orphans and the destitute. Irena began using the canteens to provide food, clothing and medicine to the Jews by registering them under fictitious Christian names. Sendler then reported cases of the highly infectious diseases of typhus and tuberculosis among the Jews in the ghetto. This prevented any inspections by the Nazis and gave Irena and her helpers passes from the Epidemic Control Department that allowed daily visits where she reestablished contacts and brought much needed food, medicine and clothing.
Irena Sendler, then a young mother herself, began to persuade parents to part with their children at the same time finding families to shelter the children, knowing members of her group risked certain death if found out. Using false documents with forged signatures, 2,500 Jewish children were smuggled out of the ghetto in gunnysacks, body bags, inside loads of goods, toolboxes, ambulances, trams and nearly every conceivable method available.
"Can you guarantee they will live?" asked many a devastated parent. Irena could only guarantee that they would certainly die if they stayed. In the documentary Irena says, "In my dreams I still hear the cries when they left their parents."
The Catholic Church provided much of the assistance in placing the children with Polish families, in orphanages run by the church and in convents. Irena said, "No one ever refused to take a child from me." All the while, with each and every child, Irena noted in a special code, the birth names along with their "new" identities in jars buried in a neighbor's back yard beneath an apple tree for the day the war would be over and in the hopes some few families could be reunited.
Luck finally gave out on October 20, 1943 when the German Nazis came for her. She was arrested, imprisoned and tortured by the Gestapo who broke her feet and legs. Irena never betrayed her associates or any of the children in hiding. She was sent to Pawiak Prison and given a death sentence. On the day of her execution she was saved by Zegota members who bribed the Germans and helped her escape. She was pursued by the Gestapo until war's end.
Once the war was over and Poland was liberated, Irena dug up the jars beneath the apple tree in her neighbor's yard to find 2,500 names of children that had been saved. Sadly, almost none of their parents survived the Holocaust or the death camps.
Irena received the Commander's Cross with Star of the Order of Polonia Restituta by the Israeli Institute in 2001.
In 2003 Pope John Paul II sent Sendler a personal letter praising her wartime efforts; she was decorated with the Order of the White Eagle, Poland's highest award presented by the president of Poland to civilians and military alike; and received the Jan Karski Award, "For Courage and Heart", given by the American Center of Polish Culture.
In March of 2007 Sendler was honored by the Polish Senate. She was 97 and unable to leave her nursing home to accept it. Polish President Lech Kaczynski stated that she "can justly be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize." In April of that year she received the Order of the Smile, which is an international award given by children, to adults distinguished in their love, care and aid for children. To date, she is the oldest recipient of that award.
In May of 2009, Irena Sendler was posthumously granted the Audrey Hepburn Humanitarian Award for her "heroic efforts which saved some 2,500 Jewish children during the German occupation of Poland in World War II."
Irena Sedler died in Warsaw on May 12, 2008 at the age of 98. She was the last survivor of the Children's Section of the Zegota Council to Assist Jews which she headed from August 1943 until the end of the war.
Four Uniontown, Kansas students discovered Irena's story in 1999 while researching for a National History Day project. From there Life in a Jar: The Irena Sendler Project was born. From that bit of research, the students produced a school play and were able to fly to Warsaw and meet Irena in person. Since then the play has had 305 presentations, has spawned a book, a made for television movie entitled The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler, an educational foundation - Lowell Milken Center, earned national teaching awards in Poland and the United States and spread Irena Sendler's message of love and respect around the world.
The PBS documentary, Irena Sendler: In the Name of Their Mothers is the first historical documentary made outside Poland which highlights the true record of Sendler and the women who worked with her to save the children in the Warsaw ghetto. The film premiered on PBS in May 2011 in honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day and has received several awards including the 2012 GRACIE Award for outstanding documentary in the Public TV category.