Sendler died in 2008 at age 98 in Warsaw, Poland. She has been called the female Oskar Schindler in her home country for saving the lives of more than 2,500 Jews, mostly children, in German-occupied Poland during World War II.
Her incredible story was largely unknown until, according to the Irena Sendler website, in the fall of 1999, a rural Kansas teacher encouraged four students to work on a yearlong National History Day project. The result was “The Life in a Jar,” a dramatic performance of Sendler’s life that has since been presented all over the United States and Europe and is now a book. “The Life in a Jar” students gathered more than 200 letters of support for Sendler’s Nobel nomination. And even though she did not receive the prize, the effort spurred world-wide attention to her story.
Sendler was a Polish Catholic who knocked on Jewish doors in the Warsaw Ghetto and, as she said, “tried to talk the mothers out of their children.”
It was in the Warsaw Ghetto that the Jews were herded behind a wall separating them from the rest of the city. Sendler managed to get fake identification to pass herself off as a nurse so she could bring food, medicine and clothing into the ghetto. Eventually it became clear what the Germans were planning to do to the Jews, and Sendler joined the Polish underground organization called Zegota. She recruited close friends, and they began to rescue Jewish children, smuggling them out of the ghetto in suitcases, sacks, boxes, even coffins.
Most of the children were relocated to Roman Catholic convents, orphanages and homes and given non-Jewish aliases. But Sendler recorded their real names and preserved her records on scraps of paper in jars that were buried in a friend’s garden.
Sendler was eventually found out and tortured by the Nazis, once having her feet and legs broken. A Gestapo officer reportedly was bribed by her colleagues and helped her escape.
After the war she dug up the jars with the names of the children she had hoped to return to their families. But for most, there were no families left.