Character Matters – Irena Sendler

By Harris R. Sherline

We often read or hear stories about courage and heroism without stopping to think about the greater meaning they convey.  And, all too often, we make a brief mental note of them and move on with the routine concerns of our daily lives.  But, such stories have special meaning – because they exemplify the best and perhaps most important aspect of personal character: helping others without any expectation of compensation or reward.  Doing good for its own sake.

It happens every day.  A passerby rushes into a burning building to save someone they don’t know, a fireman risks his life to save a dog that’s fallen through the ice, a co-worker donates an organ to an unrelated fellow employee who cannot survive without a kidney transplant, or a woman like Mother Teresa, who dedicated her entire life to caring for those who are sick and poor.  Such selflessness offers hope and encouragement in a world in which we witness far too much hate and violence.

This is the story of a woman who routinely risked her life for two years during the Nazi occupation of Poland to help Jewish infants and children, a woman who received little if any recognition for her selfless, sustained acts of heroism and asked for nothing in return.

In 1999, four high school students in a small Kansas town were asked by their teacher to check out a magazine article he read about a Polish woman, who had reportedly saved the lives of 2,500 Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942 and 1943. He said he’d never heard of the woman and speculated that the article may have gotten the facts wrong.  The students followed up as a National History Day project and discovered that the story was not only true but that this heroic woman was still alive at the time.

Irena Sendler (Sendlerowa), a Polish woman, was one of many heroes and heroines of WWII.  Yet, until recently, very few people had heard of her.  A woman of uncommon courage and principle, for two years she risked her life in the Polish Ghetto to rescue some 2,500 Jewish infants and children.

According to a website created to tell her story (, the students “found that Irena Sendler, as a non-Jewish social worker, had gone into the Warsaw Ghetto, talked Jewish parents and grandparents out of their children, rightly saying that all were going to die in the Ghetto or in death camps, taking the children past the Nazi guards or using one of the many means of escape from the Ghetto – the old courthouse for example – and then adopting them into the homes of Polish families or hiding them in convents and orphanages. She made lists of the children’s real names and put the lists in jars, then buried the jars in a garden, so that someday she could dig up the jars and find the children to tell them of their real identity…The Nazis captured her and she was beaten severely, but the Polish underground bribed a guard to release her, and she entered into hiding.”

As an administrator at the Warsaw Social Work Department during the war, Irena began making false documents for Jewish friends when the war started in 1939.  From 1939 to 1942, she made documents for people in the Warsaw area, helping many to escape before she joined the underground Zegota and started saving children.  She had a network of helpers (twenty-five at one time), almost all social workers, who rescued both adults and children from the Warsaw Ghetto, made false papers for them and found places to hide them.

Irena was eventually caught by the Gestapo and put in Pawiak Prison, where she was tortured and had a leg and arm fractured.  Zegota bribed a guard to have her released in the night to a member of the Underground shortly before she was about to be executed, and she remained in hiding throughout the rest of the war.

Irena passed away on May 12, 2008 and was buried in a Warsaw, Poland cemetery.

The great irony of Irena Sendler’s story is the fact that she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, but it was awarded to Al Gore, a man whose own character is highly questionable.   However, I believe she will be remembered long after Al Gore’s name has become just a footnote to history, demonstrating once again that character matters.

© 2008 Harris R. Sherline, All Rights Reserved
NOTE: Read more of Harris Sherline’s commentaries on his blog at “”

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