“I was taught by my father that when someone is drowning you don’t ask if they can swim, you just jump in and help.” – Irena Sendler
Irena Sendler was a member of the underground Polish organization Żegota (The Polish Council to Aid Jews) during World War II and head of its children’s section. She saved approximately 2,500 Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto…… yeah, 2,500. As a worker in the municipal Social Warfare Department, Irena was able to gain access to the ghetto in order to proactively monitor any signs of typhus, which the Germans feared had the potential to spread outside if not quickly controlled. Irena was able to smuggle out the children by hiding them in her toolbox, ambulance, suitcase, and any other hiding spot she could think of (in a few cases even training her dog to bark when Nazis were around). When arousing German suspicions, she was arrested and severely beaten by the Gestapo. Despite having her feet and legs broken, Irena refused to give up the names of her accomplices and even managed to hide the names of the children she had saved (kept in the hope of one day reunifying families). She was sentenced to death by firing squad, but was able to avoid execution via the Żegota bribing the guards and putting her into hiding.
Very few outside of Poland knew of the incredible Irena Sendler until a group of high school students in Kansas (all girls) stumbled upon the story as part of their National History Day project in 1999. Seeing an article with the “over 2,000 saved” line, they originally thought it a typo, and aggressively searched for other collaborating sources. The project grew in scope, and the students eventually put on a play Life in a Jar, which told the story of Irene Sendler. It was a massive hit. The awards and recognition that Irena received afterward, both while living and posthumously, are countless.