Irena Reporter: Liliya Karimova; Producer Michelle Siegel liliya

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Reporter: Liliya Karimova; Producer Michelle Siegel

Irena Sendler was 29 when the Germans invaded Warsaw in 1939. Using her position as a social worker at the Warsaw Welfare Department, Irena formed a secret network to provide Jews with false documents, food, clothing, and shelter. She visited the ghetto frequently, using a forged pass identifying her as an infection control nurse.  As the Germans began to liquidate the ghetto in July of 1942, Irena and her network joined Zegota, a polish underground resistance movement, and together they began smuggling children out. Renata Zajdman, whose parents were killed at Triblinka, was one of the children saved by Zegota. Renata remembers Irena telling her how difficult it was to persuade families to give up their children.

RENATA (0:38.5)

Those tragic moments that she was going to ghetto and talked to the parents—let me have the child, I have a chance. And the grandmother said no and the grandfather said yes—come tomorrow. And when she came tomorrow the people were already deported. They give up the children, they knew they would never see them again. And it was, what can I tell you, I feel like crying just thinking about it.


The Gestapo arrested Irena on her birthday -- October 20, 1943 --. Later, for a DVD about her work, Irena recounted the story of her capture.

Irena’s Quote from the DVD

Voice Over (0:31)

“I was arrested on a beautiful morning, on my birthday. Banging on the door the Gestapo came to me with birthday wishes. I was given the death penalty. However, Zegota liked me very much because I was a very active member, so both because of that and their own interest they wanted to keep me alive. I was the only one who had the list of those kids. The moment I was shot, over 2000 children would never return to the Jewish people.”


Like the children that Irena saved, she also went into hiding for the remaining years of the war. After the end of the war she was forgotten and lived in obscurity for 50 years until her story was discovered by a group of high school students in Kansas.

In the fall of 1999 three ninth-graders Megan Stewart, Elizabeth Cambers, and Jessica Shelton, were looking for a project to present on National History Day. Norm Conard, their social sciences teacher, showed the students a clipping from US News and World Report. The article claimed that Irena had saved 2500 Jewish children. Norm Conard:
CONARD (0:13)

“I don’t think the girls or myself believed that the 2500 figure listed in the article was correct. We had not heard of her I’d never found anything about her, and there was one website on the Internet that had mentioned her, just one website.”


“The Irena Sendler” project was born. Megan, Elizabeth, and Jessica started digging for answers and looking to learn what had happened to Irena. They discovered that the number in the article was correct, and they learned how Irena had kept track of the thousands of children she saved. Megan Stewart.

MEGAN (0:10)

“When Irena saved the children she would write their names on slips of paper and put them in jars and then she buried these jars under the apple tree. These pieces of paper with children’s lives—their whole life story on them.”


Taking their research, the girls wrote a play about Irena’s life during World War Two. “Life in a Jar” was performed at a district competition, and later they learned that Irena was still alive, but living in poverty in Warsaw.

Four years ago, they traveled to Poland to meet her. Elizabeth Cambers:

“When we met her for the first time we walked into her little, tiny apartment, and …off to the corner was her little room and um she saw us and she got so excited and jumped up and was trying to walk to us…and she gave us all these huge hugs. And we all crowded into her apartment and it was—it is really indescribable because you are going through all these emotions and you don’t know really what to think because—what would you say to your hero? (laugh)”


Despite their age, nationality, and religious differences between the girls and Irena, they’ve formed a bond since that first meeting. This past June, they made their third trip to Poland. Jessica Shelton:

JESSICA (0:16)
“she got very personal with us and wanted to know about our lives and wanted to know about what we were doing with our lives and how we were going to continue to change people. And all we wanted to know was how she did the courageous things that she did.”


Thanks to the attention that the girls brought to Irena and her story, she no longer lives in obscurity. The Mayor of Warsaw declared June 1st of 2005 Irena Sendler Day, and she has been moved to an assisted living home. Megan, Elizabeth, and Jessica are now in college, but they continue to share Irena’s story. They were once called the rescuers of the rescuer.

For NPR’s Intern Edition, I’m Liliya Karimova.

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