As part of their work Yad VaShem honors Righteous Gentiles who, at great peril to their own lives and the lives of their families, helped Jews escape from the Nazi dragnet. Yad VaShem has honored tens of thousands of individuals, some who helped individual Jews who were fleeing for their lives and others who helped tens, sometimes hundreds of Jews.
Very few of the honored Righteous Gentiles were responsible for helping thousands of Jews during this era but in 1965 Yad VaShem honored one such woman, Irena Sendler, who was estimated to have saved over 3000 Jewish lives. Sendler's story was almost buried in history after Yad VaShem honored her but in 1999 a group of non-Jewish highschool students revived her story and created a project about her efforts.
Irena Sendler was a young social worker when the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939. She was an early member of the Zagota underground which specialized in helping Jews escape the Nazis and she worked with her Zagota comrades to find hiding places for Jews, forge documents and identify Church and government officials who were ready to assist Zagota in their mission.
In 1941 Sendler obtained false documents that identified her as a nurse and enabled her to enter the Warsaw ghetto with food and medicine. What she saw there convinced her that the Nazis intended to murder all of the ghetto's Jews and she began to smuggle street orphans out of the ghetto, hiding them under tram seats and leading them out through sewer pipes and other hidden passages.
Sendler also went door to door to convince parents that the only chance that their children had to survive would be if they allowed her to take the children to the other side of the wall. This was traumatic for Sendler who later described the scenes. "I talked the mothers out of their children" she said of the heartwrenching scenes which she experienced, day after day, as she led children away from their families. "Those scenes over whether to give a child away were heart-rending. Sometimes, they wouldn't give me the child. Their first question was, 'What guarantee is there that the child will live?' I said, 'None. I don't even know if I will get out of the ghetto alive today."
All in all Sendler and her Zagota comrades were able to smuggle over 2500 children out of the ghetto, often sedating them and hiding them in toolboxes, bags, luggage and even under garbage carts and barking dogs to distract the Germans as they crossed over from the ghetto. When the children arrived in the "safe" area of Warsaw the Zagota members took them to new hiding places in convents, orphanages and in sympathetic Polish homes.
Throughout the rescue operation Sendler recorded the names of the children on tissue paper which she stuffed into glass jars that were hidden in her garden. She hoped to be able to reunite the children with their families after the war or, if not, with their Jewish community.
In October of 1943 Sendler was arrested by the Gestapo and taken to the notorious Pawiak prison. The Germans tortured her and broke both of her legs but Sendler never revealed any information about the whereabouts of the children that she had rescued. She was sentenced to be executed but a last-minute bribe by her Zagota friends secured her release and Sendler lived out the rest of the war in hiding.
Sendler died at age 102 but before she died the students from Kansas met with her and interviewed her. The resulting project, Life in a Jar funded by the LMFF, became a website, a book and a performance that has been viewed by thousands of people in audiences throughout the world.