SHE was only 4 ft 11 in tall, a wisp of a Catholic girl in her early 30s, a fair-haired blue-eyed beauty, and an unlikely heroine of the Second World War.
Yet before she was interrogated by the Gestapo, savagely beaten and sentenced to death – only to miraculously survive – Irena Sendler helped 2,500 Jewish children escape Nazi death squads. A female Oskar Schindler, Irena smuggled children out of the Warsaw ghetto in suitcases, boxes and in coffins hidden beneath corpses.
She led many through the city’s pestilential sewers and labyrinthine tunnels, hiding Jewish infants with families across German-occupied Poland.
Her story was suppressed for decades after the war, but is now told in the moving new book Irena’s Children, by historian Professor Tilar Mazzeo. “Irena risked her life several times a day throughout the war saving children who faced certain death,” says the author. “If caught, the Nazis would have executed her and her entire family.
She displayed outstanding moral and physical courage. Yet she always lamented that she hadn’t done more, though I don’t know what more she could have done.
“She carried her scars, both physical and mental, her entire life. Even into her 90s she was haunted by the memories of parents handing over their children knowing they would probably never see them again.”
Irena was a Warsaw social worker, horrified when the Germans occupied Poland in 1939 and imprisoned Jews in derelict ghettos where disease and starvation ran rampant.
As the Nazis began systematically exterminating Jews, Irena led an underground Polish network that smuggled Jewish children out of the ghetto and hid them with Polish families under false identities.
“She smuggled babies out in tool boxes concealed among bricks in a truck, helped toddlers escape hidden under dirty laundry, and even brought children out buried beneath fresh corpses in coffins,” says Mazzeo.
“Her network led children out of the ghetto crawling through foul sewers sometimes barely 12 inches high, and through underground passages.
The Germans later filled the sewers with poison gas to discourage escapes. “Sleeping babies fitted snugly inside suitcases.
"Some mothers would wrap their infants in blankets and throw them over the ghetto wall hoping that Irena’s network would find them.”
MAZZEO adds: “Irena smuggled one baby out of the ghetto in a bag, heavily sedated so that it would not cry and expose her. When Nazi troops boarded her bus, Irena had only moments to escape before they were discovered. It was one of countless close calls with death.”
At great danger to herself she kept a list of the children’s original names, their new fake identities and addresses buried in a jar beneath an apple tree, so that Jewish parents could find their missing children after the war. She could not have known that tragically 90 per cent of the parents would not escape the gas chambers of Treblinka.
If discovered, it was a list that would have cost thousands of lives. “It would set in motion a chain of executions,” says Mazzeo.
“The Gestapo would hunt down the Jewish children. They would murder the Polish men and women who had agreed to care for them and hide them.
"And they would kill Irena and her mother.” She was finally captured when a laundress under torture revealed that the social worker was passing messages for the Resistance.
“Irena was brutally tortured, beaten with clubs and metal pipes, and had both legs broken.There were scars and ugly open wounds running in jagged strips across her body that would mark her forever, but she never divulged any information,” says Mazzeo.
“The only reason she wasn’t tortured to death was because the Germans thought she was insignifi cant, not realising that she led the underground network saving Jews.
“Finally she was ordered to be executed, but on her way to the firing squad a German offi cer led her from the prison and told her to run.
"The Resistance had paid its biggest bribe ever for her freedom. “Irena could have gone into hiding, but instead she assumed a false identity, dy"ed her hair, and continued working for the Resistance.”
But while Irena was undeniably a heroine, Mazzeo admits: “She was not a saint. Irena’s love life was anarchic and unruly, and she struggled with the self-knowledge that she was not a good wife or a good daughter.” She had separated from her Catholic husband, Mietek Sendler, before the war, and he found himself in a German prisoner of war camp.
In his absence, Irena had fallen in love with her childhood friend Adam Celnikier, one of Warsaw’s few surviving Jews, hiding under a false identity. “Irena was a great hero, but she suffered human flaws,” says Mazzeo.
She had separated from her Catholic husband, Mietek Sendler, before the war, and he found himself in a German prisoner of war camp.
In his absence, Irena had fallen in love with her childhood friend Adam Celnikier, one of Warsaw’s few surviving Jews, hiding under a false identity. “Irena was a great hero, but she suffered human flaws,” says Mazzeo. “When her husband returned from the POW camp after the war he found her living with her Jewish lover and pregnant with his child. Irena acted selflessly to save thousands, but in doing so she put her mother’s life at constant risk.”
“When her husband returned from the POW camp after the war he found her living with her Jewish lover and pregnant with his child. Irena acted selfl essly to save thousands, but in doing so she put her mother’s life at constant risk.”
After the war, Irena tried in vain to find the buried list of children’s names. “Warsaw was razed in 1945 as the Germans destroyed it street by street,” says Mazzeo. “Irena dug through the rubble, but it was impossible.
"So she and her surviving network recreated the list of children from memory: all 2,500. “However, many of those saved probably never knew they were Irena’s children, almost all their parents died, and in post-war Poland under Soviet authority it was dangerous to be associated with the Resistance, who were viewed by the Soviets as supporting the West.
"Many of those children, now in their 80s and 90s, still don’t know they were saved from the ghetto.