Irena Sendler, a Polish Catholic social worker who smuggled about 2,500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto during the Holocaust, has been honored posthumously by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) for her heroism in risking her life to save others.
The ADL Courage to Care Award, which honors rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust era, was presented to Irena’s daughter Janina Zgrzembska in Warsaw. A delegation of ADL leaders are currently in Poland accompanying an Israel Defense Forces mission on a Polish-Jewish heritage tour.
“Being in Europe and here in Warsaw, I cannot put out of my mind what the rise of National Socialism meant for millions of people and especially for European Jewry,” said Abraham H. Foxman, ADL National Director and a Holocaust survivor who was saved by his Polish Catholic nanny, in presenting the award.
“Yet there were acts of courage and human decency during the Holocaust, stories to bear witness to goodness, love and compassion. Irena Sendler was one of those individuals who defied the odds and risked her life to save Jews during this bleak period of human history. Irena was a beacon, and a reminder to the rest of us that one life can truly make a difference.”
When Nazi Germany invaded Poland during World War II, Irena was a 29-year-old social worker in Warsaw. When the Jews of the city were forced into the Warsaw ghetto, Irena sprung into action. She became head of the children’s bureau of Żegota, an underground organization created to save Jews. After persuading Jewish parents to part with their children, Irena and a group of volunteers transported hundreds of infants, young children and teenagers outside the ghetto walls to safety.
By issuing false documents with forged signatures, Irena placed the children in orphanages, convents or safe homes. She kept a record of the children’s true identities in a jar buried in a neighbor’s yard.
Righteous Among the NationsIn October 1943, after the Nazis became aware of her activities, Irena was imprisoned and tortured by the Gestapo, which broke her feet and legs. Yet she refused to betray her associates or any of the children in hiding. Sentenced to death, Irena was saved at the last minute when the Żegota bribed Gestapo agents to halt the execution. Irena escaped prison and was pursued by the Nazis for the remainder of the war.
After the war, Irena retrieved the jar of names and began tracking down some of the children to reunite them with relatives scattered throughout Europe. Tragically, many of the children’s families had perished during the Holocaust.
Irena continued living in Warsaw after World War II. In 1965, Yad Vashem recognized her as Righteous Among the Nations. In 1991, Irena was made an honorary citizen of the State of Israel and in 2003 she received the Jan Karski Award for Valor and Courage. Irena passed away in May 2008 at the age of 98.
In 1987, ADL created a unique award to honor rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust era. The ADL Courage to Care Award is a plaque with bas-reliefs depicting the backdrop of the rescuers' exceptional deeds – the Nazis' persecution, deportation and murder of millions of Jews. The Courage to Care program is sponsored by Eileen Ludwig Greenland.
Past recipients of the ADL Courage to Care Award include: Irene Gut Opdyke, Gilberto Bosques Saldívar, Eduardo Propper de Callejón, Khaled Abdelwahhab, Ernst Leitz II, Mefail and Njazi Bicaku, Hiram Bingham IV, Sir Nicholas Winton, Konstantin Koslovsky, Jan and Miep Gies, Aristides De Sousa Mendes, Jan Karski, Selahattin Ulkumen, Chiune Sugihara, the French town of Le Chambon-Sur-Lignon, Emilie and Oskar Schindler, The Partisans of Riccione, Italy and Johanna Vos.