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Irena sympathized with Jews from childhood. Her physician father died in 1917 of typhus contracted while treating Jewish patients. She opposed the ghetto-bench system that existed at some prewar Polish universities and as a result was suspended from Warsaw University for three years.
During the German occupation of Poland Sendler lived in Warsaw (prior to that, she had lived in Otwock and Tarczyn while working for urban Social Welfare departments). As early as 1939, when the Germans invaded Poland, she began aiding Jews. She and her helpers created over 3,000 false documents to help Jewish families, prior to joining the organized ?egota resistance and the children's division. Helping Jews was very risky—in German-occupied Poland, all household members risked death if they were found to be hiding Jews, a more severe punishment than in other occupied European countries.
In December 1942 the newly created ?egota (the Council to Aid Jews) nominated her (by her cover name Jolanta) to head its children's section. As an employee of the Social Welfare Department, she had a special permit to enter the Warsaw Ghetto to check for signs of typhus, something the Nazis feared would spread beyond the Ghetto. During these visits, she wore a Star of David as a sign of solidarity with the Jewish people and so as not to call attention to herself.
She cooperated with the Children's Section of the Municipal Administration, linked with the RGO (Central Welfare Council), a Polish relief organization that was tolerated under German supervision. She organized the smuggling of Jewish children out of the Ghetto, carrying them out in boxes, suitcases and trolleys. Under the pretext of conducting inspections of sanitary conditions during a typhoid outbreak Sendler visited the Ghetto and smuggled out babies and small children in ambulances and trams, sometimes disguising them as packages. She also used the old courthouse at the edge of the Warsaw Ghetto (still standing) as one of the main routes for smuggling out children. The children were placed with Polish families, the Warsaw orphanage of the Sisters of the Family of Mary, or Roman Catholic convents such as the Little Sister Servants of the Blessed Virgin Mary Conceived Immaculate at Turkowice and Chotomów. Some children were smuggled to priests in parish rectories. She hid lists of their names in jars in order to keep track of their original and new identities. ?egota assured the children that, when the war was over, they would be returned to Jewish relatives.
In 1943 Sendler was arrested by the Gestapo, severely tortured, and sentenced to death. ?egota saved her by bribing German guards on the way to her execution. She was left in the woods, unconscious and with broken arms and legs. She was listed on public bulletin boards as among those executed. For the remainder of the war, she lived in hiding, but continued her work for the Jewish children. After the war, she dug up the jars containing the children's identities and attempted to find the children and return them to their parents. However, almost all of their parents had been killed at the Treblinka extermination camp or had gone missing otherwise.
After the war and the Soviet takeover of Poland, Irena Sendler was persecuted by the communist Polish state authorities for her relations with the Polish government in exile and with the Home Army. During this period she miscarried her second child.
In 1965 Sendler was recognized by Yad Vashem as one of the Righteous among the Nations, which was confirmed in 1983 by the Israeli Supreme Court. She also was awarded the Commander's Cross by the Israeli Institute. Only in that year did the Polish communist government allow her to travel abroad, to receive the award in Israel.
In 2003 Pope John Paul II sent Sendler a personal letter praising her wartime efforts. On 10 October 2003 she received the Order of the White Eagle, Poland's highest civilian decoration, and the Jan Karski Award "For Courage and Heart," given by the American Center of Polish Culture in Washington, D.C..
On 14 March 2007 Sendler was honored by Poland's Senate. At age 97, she was unable to leave her nursing home to receive the honor, but she sent a statement through El?bieta Ficowska, whom Sendler had saved as an infant. Polish President Lech Kaczy?ski stated she "can justly be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize" (though nominations are supposed to be kept secret). On 11 April 2007, she received the Order of the Smile as the oldest recipient of the award.
In May 2009, Irena Sendler was posthumously granted the Audrey Hepburn Humanitarian Award. The award, named in honor of the late actress and UNICEF ambassador, is presented to persons and organizations recognised for helping children. In its citation, the Audrey Hepburn Foundation recalled Irena Sendler’s heroic efforts that saved two and a half thousand Jewish children during the German occupation of Poland in World War Two.
Sendler was the last survivor of the Children's Section of the ?egota Council to Assist Jews, which she had headed from January 1943 until the end of the war.
In 2007 considerable publicity accompanied Sendler's nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize. While failed nominations for the award have not been officially announced by the Nobel organization for 50 years, the International Peace Research Institute, Oslo, reported in 2007 that Irena Sendler's nominator had made the nomination public. Regardless of its legitimacy, talk of the nomination focused a spotlight on Sendler and her wartime achievements. The 2007 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and former Vice President of the United States Al Gore.
American filmmaker Mary Skinner began working on a historical documentary film based on Irena Sendler's memoir as told to Anna Mieszkowska in 2003. "Irena Sendler, In the Name of Their Mothers" features the last long interviews Irena Sendler gave before she died. Also featured are three of Sendler's co-workers and several of the Jewish children they saved. Filmed mostly in Poland with Polish cinematographers Andrzej Wolf and Slawomir Grunberg, the film uses evocative location footage of Irena Sendler's wartime apartment, Zegota headquarters, the Warsaw sewers, Gestapo headquarters and the Pawiak Prison along with rare footage of the city during the German occupation to vividly re-create the events of Sendler's life. This is the first historical documentary made outside Poland to record the true story of Irena Sendler and the daring "conspiracy of women" who worked with her to rescue and protect the tragically endangered children of the Warsaw ghetto. Skinner recorded over 70 hours of interview material for the film and spent over four years consulting archives, historical experts and eyewitnesses in the US and Poland to uncover many unknown details about their operation. The film is planned for worldwide release in 2010.
In 2006, Kansas students produced a play based on research into Irena Sendler's life story entitled Life in a Jar. It has since been adapted to television as The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler, an American TVM production. Has posthumously been awarded the 2009 Audrey Hepburn Humanitarian Award.
The Hallmark Hall of Fame film by renowned TV director and producer John Kent Harrison is based on the true story of 2007 Nobel Peace Prize nominee Irena Sendler.