It’s that time of the month again! The time where we celebrate women, and all we are capable of . Yep, it’s time for Bring It Like a Broad!
Remember, the purpose of this series is to highlight real women who are doing or have done the extraordinary. Our goal in celebrating these special people and their accomplishments is that each of us will be encouraged to believe in the possibility of our own goals and dreams. We also hope that seeing these women changing the world will blaze paths for all the little girls out there who will grow up someday and want to join their ranks.
The first two installments of this series were interviews with women I know personally, who have majorly inspired me. Today, we are going to honor a woman from the past who made an enormous impact on the lives of those around her.
Most of us have heard of Oskar Schindler, a German industrialist who saved the lives of 1,200 Jewish people during the Holocaust. He has been the subject of books and movies, and is a person who is incredibly inspiring for his courage and bravery. But he is not the only person who risked his life to save others during the Holocaust.
Meet our February Broad, Irena Sendler.
Irena in 2005, photo courtesy of irenasendler.org
She was a Polish woman born on February 15, 1910 near the Warsaw ghetto. Today would be her 108th birthday, so it’s fitting she be recognized as our bad ass broad this month.
Irena’s father had a great influence on her throughout her whole life. He was one of the first Polish Socialists, and was a doctor, whose patients were mostly poor Jews.
During World War II, the Warsaw ghetto was the largest Jewish ghetto in German-occupied Europe. Irena was a Senior Administrator of the Warsaw Social Welfare Department. This organization provided food, money, and other services to the elderly, to orphans and to the poor and homeless. She was the equivalent of a social worker today.
Photo found by Teresa Prekerowa, courtesy of Wikipedia
When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Irena began to use her position as a social worker to aid the Jews. In November of 1940, the Warsaw ghetto was sealed off. Almost 400,000 people had been driven into the extremely small area, only about 16 blocks. Conditions were horrible. Good hygiene was impossible, there was no food or medical supplies, and there was no space. Soon, disease became rampant, as well as death.
Because she was an employee of the Social Welfare Department, she was given a special permit which allowed her to enter areas of the ghetto where the Jewish people were. She was supposed to be checking for signs of diseases like typhus, because the Germans were paranoid about the diseases spreading beyond the ghetto.
She began sneaking clothing, money, and medicine in to the Jewish people. She would report the Jewish families she was helping as having highly infectious diseases, in order to prevent the Germans from coming to inspect.
Irena joined a secret group called Zegota (the Council to Aid Jews) in 1942. This group was organized by the Polish underground resistance, and Irena was one of it’s first recruits. She became an integral part of the organization, and a huge reason they were able to accomplish so much. They created over 3,000 false documents to help Jewish families. In 1943, she was nominated to head Zegota’s Jewish children’s section.
Irena and her coworkers began to smuggle infants and toddlers out of the Warsaw ghetto, saving them from being sent to concentration camps. They got very creative in the ways they would sneak the children out. Sometimes they would use ambulances, but more often they had to hide the children in suitcases and packages.
Children in Warsaw ghetto, photo courtesy of iwka.wordpress.com
Remember, it was no light slap on the wrist if you were caught helping the Jews in World War II. In fact, it was a huge risk, punishable by death. To make things worse, the Nazis wouldn’t just kill the person aiding the Jews, but also that person’s whole family, and sometimes even their close friends or acquaintances. She risked her life every single day, and she had to be very strategic in order to protect those close to her as well.
Once the children were hidden and smuggled out, they would be placed with either Polish Christian families, or into orphanages and convents. The children were protected further by being given false names. They were also taught to recite Christian prayers, just in case they were ever tested by Nazis.
Irena and her helpers were very careful to make sure the children didn’t lose their Jewish identities. They kept detailed documents listing the children’s real names, fake names, and locations. Of course, they couldn’t risk those documents being found, so they would hide them in jars and bury them. Irena was determined to get each child back to their family after the war was over, if at all possible.
Sadly, the Germans eventually caught on to what Irena was doing. In 1943 she was arrested and her home was ransacked. During this event, Irena was able to toss the lists of children to her friend, who hid them in her loose clothing. Her friend was never searched, thus keeping the children safe.
Irena was brutally tortured and beaten horribly. The Nazis fractured her feet and her legs, among other things. But Irena was courageous, and never betrayed any of the children or her coworkers. She was sentenced to death by firing squad.
Pawaik Prison, where the Nazis held Irena, photo courtesy of irenasendler.org
Fortunately, on the way to her execution, members of Zegota were able to bribe some of the greedy Germans into letting her go. She immediately went in to hiding.
You would think that would be enough for her, but it wasn’t. Irena had a determination and drive that isn’t seen a lot in this world. She returned to Warsaw with a fake identity, and began working with the Zegota organization again, continuing to help and hide Jews. She also worked as a nurse.
When the war ended, Irena and her coworkers turned the children’s records over to one of their colleagues who attempted to find the children and return them to their parents. Sadly, almost all of the parents had either gone missing, or had been killed in concentration camps. That goes to show that if it weren’t for Irena, most of those children would have been murdered, too.
It’s a travesty that Irena’s accomplishments went virtually unnoticed for decades. In fact, it wasn’t until 2000, when four students at Uniontown High School in Kansas won the Kansas State National History Day Competition, that Irena’s story became mainstream. They won by writing a play about Irena’s accomplishments, called Life in a Jar. It brought the spotlight to Irena and all she had done. The world finally took notice!
Irena lived a long and meaningful life after the war, still staying involved in activism. She passed away in May of 2008.
By the end of the Holocaust, six million Jews had been removed from this earth. The absolute horror of the atrocities that took place during that time are indescribable. Before the war, there were 9 million Jews in the 21 European countries that would eventually be overrun by the Germans. By the end of the war, two out of every three of those Jews had been killed. 1.2 million Jewish children were murdered. That doesn’t account for the thousands of children who were left disabled, missing body parts, and without families.
Irena with some of the children she saved, photo by Mariusz Kubik, courtesy of Wikipedia
Irena Sendler saved 2,500 Jewish children. That’s more than twice the number of Jews saved by Oskar Schindler! She used her position to do what she believed no one else could. She risked her life, enduring torture and ridicule at the hands of the Nazis, and almost being killed, only to go right back out and do it again.
I can’t think of a more courageous woman than Irena. She reminds me that sometimes we have the ability to help a person, and we always should. It wasn’t her fight, but she fought it anyway. Those children mattered to her, and she knew she could make a difference, so she did. Imagine the 2,500 children she saved, and how many people’s lives that affects. Those 2,500 people now have children and grandchildren, all of whom wouldn’t even exist today if it weren’t for the courage of this woman.
A tree planted in Irena’s honor, photo courtesy of iwka.wordpress.com
“I did nothing special. Any decent person would do the same thing under the circumstances. When somebody is drowning, you reach in to save them whether you can swim or not. Race, religion, nationality don’t matter.” -Irena Sendler
Isn’t her humility incredible? When we go through hardships in our life, stop for a second and look at the big picture. Not to say our problems aren’t relevant, but just remember, no matter our situation, we can change this world, just like Irena did. We may not save thousands of lives, but if we can affect just one person for the better, then our life means something more.
Is there a woman you know personally who inspires you and others in some way? Is there a woman from history that you look up to? There are no guidelines–if a woman is inspiring to you in ANY way, it counts!
Please email me if you have a lady you want to see featured in Bring It Like a Broad.
You can also email me with any questions or comments you may have: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Until next time,
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I’m the founder of The Bonafide Broad, and a thirty-something broad originally from the Pacific Northwest. I now live in Flagstaff, Arizona, with my guy, Mr. OG. When I’m not busy rescuing kittens from tall trees, carrying babies from burning buildings, and trying to establish world peace, I work for the school district in Flagstaff, and I run this blog.