There are moments in history that simultaneously remind you of both the compassion and the utter inhumanity human beings are capable of.
During WWII, the Holocaust in Nazi Germany claimed the lives of 6 million Jews and 11 million people in total. It will forever be remembered as one of the world’s greatest tragedies.
And yet, some of the stories that have emerged from this period are so captivating. Often, they reveal powerful stories of people banding together to protect one another. They paint a picture of a deeper level of humanity, one that would not be possible to understand outside of the context of such heartbreaking cruelty.
The heroes that emerged from this time period fill me with a renewed faith in the quintessential goodness of humankind, like the remarkable rescues orchestrated by Marion Pritchard.
Another hero of this dark moment in history is Irena Sendler, popularly known as “Jolanta.” The Polish woman rescued 2,500 Jewish children from the Warsaw ghetto, saving them from certain death at concentration camps.
It’s people like Irena — people whose lights shine bright enough to redeem all of the dark spots of humanity — that make life truly worth living.
Thumbnail Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Irena was born Irena Krzyżanowska on February 15, 1910, in Warsaw. Though not Jewish herself, she grew up near a Jewish community, which arguably bred her passion for protecting her friends and neighbors from the atrocities occurring in the Nazi concentration camps.
Irena attended Warsaw University and was a member of the socialist party — a view which eventually got her kicked out of university.
During the Second World War, Irena and her dedicated team of humanitarian aid workers helped thousands of Jewish families by smuggling children out of ghettos andgiving them fake documents so they could pose as Christians until the end of the war.
In total, it is estimated that Irena helped 2,500 children evade capture.
Irena recorded the saved children’s actual and fake names and stored them in glass jars to more easily reunite families after the war.
This later became the inspiration for several books as well as a play about Irena’s life.
Irena was eventually caught by the gestapo and beaten ruthlessly for her crimes.
At this time, aiding Jewish people was punishable by death in German-occupied Poland. One’s entire family could be executed if caught.
Miraculously, after Irena was captured and horribly tortured, she managed to narrowly escape death by firing squad after some of her old humanitarian aid worker friends bribed the Gestapo.
After she returned to safety, Irena continued to lead a life of service, working as both a nurse and a teacher at various points in her life.
She was jailed briefly in the late 194os due to her involvement with a communist resistance group. She was harshly interrogated and even lost her baby while in custody.
Irena has been recognized by countless organizations for her humanitarian efforts. Most notably, she was recognized as Righteous Among the Nations in 1965, by the Yad Vashem.
In 2003, she received a personal letter from Pope John Paul II thanking her for her contributions to humanity.
In 2009, she was posthumously awarded the Audrey Hepburn Humanitarian Award.
Throughout her life, Irena proved herself a true friend of the Jewish people time and time again.
To thank her for her unwavering support and courage, the Nation of Israel made her an honorary citizen of Israel in 1991.
In 2013, the entrance to the Museum of the History of Polish Jews was dedicated in her honor.
Irena passed away in her hometown of Warsaw in May 2008, at the age of 98.
She lived an incredible life full of love and selflessness and, thanks to her pure heart and dedication to peace, will never be forgotten.
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