I love hearing people’s stories – there are so many of them in the world. I always find it inspiring to hear the tale of someone’s life, especially if I haven’t heard of them before, and invariably I learn something new. I started an illustration project called Have You Heard Of..? to bring more people to light, to tell their stories, and to celebrate lives which might not be known to us.
In my first collection, I’ve found rebels, artists, activists and unstoppable workers for justice, and in this penultimate post for the Folksy blog I’m looking at the life of social worker and humantiarian Irena Sendler.
Have you heard of Irena Sendler, daring humanitarian
Irena Sendler was a young social worker working in her hometown of Warsaw in Poland, when in 1940 the Nazis ordered all Jews in the city to be isolated inside a ghetto. The ghetto was surrounded by high walls, which the Jewish people had been forced to build themselves, under harsh guard of the Nazis. A relatively small area of the city considering it held 450,000 Jewish people, the ghetto became a desperate place to be, with squalid living conditions, disease and starvation.
Irena, who had already been helping Jewish people before the ghetto, devised a plan to get inside. She obtained papers to enter the walls and inspect the sanitation. Once inside, daring and resourceful Irena helped Jewish activists to mobilise. Together they started to smuggle out Jewish children, finding safe houses to hide them in with Polish families or place them in safe Polish orphanages. Irena and her network found lots of ways to rescue the children: they hid them in ambulances, took them out through the sewer system and even carried them out in tool bags, sacks and suitcases. It’s easy to type or read these words from the comfort of our freedom today, but imagine actually doing it, with the dangers involved.
Irena was arrested for her activities in 1943 and though she suffered badly at the hands of the authorities, she did not divulge any real details of her network. Sentenced to death, Irena was saved at the very last by her fellow activists, who had managed to bribe the executioner to help her to safety. Irena went into hiding until the end of the war in 1944.
In 1965 Irena Sendler was recognised for her efforts in saving Jewish people during the war, and in 2003 Poland awarded her its highest honour: the Order of the White Eagle. The amazing Irena Sendler died in 2008 in Warsaw.