Irena Sendler – the Facts and the Myths

Henryk Grynberg


Her father was a physician who treated poor people without charge, both gentiles and Jews. He told her to play with the Jewish children who looked into their garden. At school, her class mates whispered that she must be Jewish, because she fought in defense of the only Jewish girl among them – writes Anna Bikont in her book Sendlerowa w ukryciu (Irena Sendler in Hiding, Czarne 2017). For pedagogical training, Irena chose an orphanage affiliated with Janusz Korczak. She joined a socialist, pro-Piłsudski student organization. And again, ‘when a female Jewish student got beaten up by a nationalist militant, Irena attacked him with her fists’ (p. 67). She wrote her Master’s thesis on Eliza Orzeszkowa who was a defender of Jews. She worked for the Section providing Assistance to Mothers and Children which was part of the Citizens’ Committee for the Unemployed, and as a legal aide to mothers with illegitimate children, under the auspices of Wolna Wszechnica (Free University) where many students were workers, communists and Jews. Her mentor was Helena Radlińska (herself Jewish) who advocated a social pedagogy and had educated ‘more than a dozen women [including Irena] who were to rescue Jewish children’ (p. 62). Her other mentor was Józef Zysman, a lawyer who defended the unemployed facing eviction, like herself fought for the rights of the illegitimate children, and during the war, took care of street children who escaped from the Warsaw Ghetto on behalf of the underground Jewish National Committee (see his The Cigarette Sellers of Three Crosses Square published under his assumed name Joseph Ziemian). At that time, Irena worked for the city’s Welfare Department and together with her female colleagues (several of whom were concealed Jews) falsified documents in order to provide material assistance to Jewish children. Those papers were consciously approved by the head of the Department, Jan Dobraczyński, a well-known Catholic author and antisemite.

Her marriage to a fellow student Mieczysław Sendler (a non-Jew) did not prove lasting: ‘in 1938 he took a job in Poznań, while she remained in Warsaw’. In 1939 he fought in the Polish army and was imprisoned in a P.O.W camp until 1945. Irena tended to wounded soldiers in Warsaw’s Military Hospital where some of the patients were hidden Jews (see my ‘A Mass for Us All’ in Drohobycz, Drohobycz and Other Stories, Penguin Books 2002). She joined the Polish Socialists, a left-wing faction of the Polish Socialist Party, and later the Workers’ Party of Polish Socialists. For her, socialism ‘meant not so much a doctrine or political program, but a sort of social sensitivity and a resentment against  the cult of money’ (p. 85). Anna Bikont believes that she was attracted to the Socialists also ‘because that was where her friends who rescued Jews and the Jews whom she tried to rescue belonged’ (ibid). Some of those friends found themselves behind the Ghetto walls, including Adam Celnikier, a lawyer from a well-to-do family who donated part of his inheritance to a communist organization. The city’s Sanitary Department had passes allowing its workers to enter the Ghetto, even several times a day, and Irena frequently took advantage of this. Adam Celnikier, after  escaping to the Aryan-side, assumed the name of Stefan Zgrzembski and never  returned to his original identity.  After the war, they were married but continued to hide the fact that he was Jewish, even from their own children.

Dobraczyński, who was ordered by the Germans ‘to put an end to the plague of children begging in the streets’, soon discovered that almost half of those picked up were Jewish. He reproached his co-workers for ‘not selecting them more carefully,’ yet kept signing the forged documents because he was in love and had an extramarital affair with one of them. The Jewish beggar children smuggled food for their families in the Ghetto and did not want to remain on the Aryan-side.  Thus a group of Jewish women,  Estera Markin, Ewa Rechman, Ala Gołąb-Grynberg, Romana Wiśniacka (all of whom perished) ‘sent to the Aryan side only orphans’ (p. 87). Irena Schultz and Helena Szeszko arranged the necessary documents and placed the babies at the Boduen Home, a Catholic charity establishment with the help of Władysława Marynowska who worked there. Sendler, Marynowska and Gołąb-Grynberg became a ‘technical team’ which placed more than a dozen infants on the Aryan-side with a help of a Polish policeman (ibid). But the actual ‘Sendler network’ came into being only after the creation of the Council for Helping the Jews, code-named Żegota, in December 1942. Irena coordinated the action and passed on money and forged documents. During the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising ‘the Sendler group established emergency hideouts, a chain of homes temporarily – for a few days or weeks – sheltering children or adults while Żegota prepared  for them documents and places for a longer stay’ (p. 152).

These emergency shelters were literally life savers. But we, provincial Jews, did not know about them on that late afternoon in May 1943 when my mother and I were chased out of our rented place. Having nowhere to go, we rode on trams back and forth over the bridge and my mother said that ‘we’ll have to go to the Vistula’. And we would have, had I not suddenly reminded her that Mrs. Tabor, who used to visit our neighbors in Radoszyna, lived on Grochowska Street. The street was quite long and I do not know by what miracle my mother found the right number – just before the curfew. Mrs. Tabor sheltered us overnight  and for a couple more weeks – completely free – until my mother was able to contact my father who was hiding in the countryside and get from him some money for our further survival. Some other people helped  in various ways, but it was Mrs. Tabor – I do not even know her first name - who literally saved our lives, and I deeply regret that as the sole living witness I cannot apply for an official recognition of her courage and goodness from Yad Vashem.

In the winter of 1943, Żegota had about 200-300 people under its financial care in Warsaw. After the Ghetto Uprising that number had risen to one thousand, in October 1943 to 1,500, and in the first half of 1944 to 3,000-4,000 in the entire country (p. 146). ‘Żegota sent desperate letters to the Delegatura (the representative body in Poland of the London émigré government) requesting an increase of funding.’ But to no avail. ‘In the years 1943-1944, the Delegatura allocated to Żegota five percent of its welfare budget’ (p. 147). In March 1943, after receiving 250,000 zloty, Żegota’s president Julian Grobelny responded in a letter that such limited means put  in question ‘the sense of the Committee’s further existence’ (p. 149).

The funds that London allocated for Żegota included money from Jewish organizations. According to the historian Dariusz Stola, the sum amounted to $1,300,000. The monthly allowance was 500 zloty per person. At the then-exchange rate of about 100 zloty to a dollar, that budget should have sufficed, according to Bikont, for the annual support of 200,000 persons(p. 148). Even if – as the documents show - only half of those funds reached their destination, they could have helped 100,000 people.  In addition, ‘Żegota was one of three organizations helping the Jews in Warsaw – alongside the Jewish National Committee and the Bund.’ These organizations acted as part of Żegota, but provided assistance mainly on their own (ibid). There is no explanation for the above-mentioned financial discrepancies.   In the view of the author, ‘Żegota not only came late into existence, but also, due to its modest financial means, was able to assist only a small percentage of those in need’.(p. 146).

In October 1943, the Childrens’ Department, headed by Irena Sendler, was providing care for about one hundred Jewish children and received from Żegota 80,000 zloty, of which 50,000 had come from Jewish organizations (p. 217). She was listed among the ‘suspects of communist activity and/or Jewish descent’ by the intelligence service of the  Narodowe Siły Zbrojne (a nationalist organization) which informed on them to the Germans or to blackmailers. On 13 October 1943, she was arrested, not as a rescuer of Jewish children but as a ‘communist activist’ (p. 223).  According to the documents, she was held at ‘Pawiak’ prison for three weeks (not three months as she recounted later). She was beaten but did not betray anyone and was released ‘thanks to a bribe paid by Żegota’ (p. 226) – but not for half a million zloty, as she liked to claim. Julian Grobelny’s release cost 36,000 zloty, although he was arrested as a clandestine military officer working for the underground and helping the Jews (ibid). For Adolf Berman, the blackmailers demanded a ransom of half a million, because they knew everything about him, but accepted 200,000 (p. 228). Contrary to her claims, Sendler could not have been intended for execution, because just two weeks after her release, she was re-employed by the city ‘with back pay for the time of her arrest’ (p. 230-231). And she could not have been – even in error - on the  list of the executed, because only men’s executions were announced.

Children were smuggled out of the Ghetto during the nine months from the time of the mass deportation, which began on 22 July 1942, to the Ghetto Uprising, which broke out on 19 April 1943. Sendler did not bring out any children personally, and those whom she was helping ‘almost never had any personal contact with her and did not even know that she existed’ – emphasizes Bikont. Sendler herself admitted that ‘the Jews knew much better than the gentiles all the means of getting out of the Ghetto’ – mostly through the Courthouse at Leszno Street, through cellars, and with groups going out to work on the Aryan side. ‘The help of the gentiles was indispensable on the other side of the wall’ (p. 102), and it required considerable sums of money, because the cost of hiding was horrendous, especially in the summer of 1942 when more Jews than ever were on the run. ‘My conditions: sixty zloty per day paid eighteen months in advance [or] I take [the child] out on the street and may God’s will be done’ – warned a woman with whom Jonas Turkow had left his nine-year-old daughter (after the war, he had to pay an additional 10,000 zloty ransom in order to get her back). Usually the price for hiding a Jew was one hundred zloties a day. Hiding Jews, whether children or adults, according to Bikont, ‘was a business like any other, except for higher profit: more risk - more profit’ (p. 344).

The children paid an especially high psychological price. Little Piotruś was told that if asked where his parents are, he should reply they had been killed by a bomb at the beginning of the war. He concluded that it was  better not to have parents than to have such as his (p. 126). Children, who had lost their parents, became attached to their guardians, but because of nosy neighbours and blackmailers freqeuently had to be moved on to others. ‘Auntie, how many more mummies must I have’ – sobbed a four-year-old whom Sendler was taking to a new hiding-place (p. 209). When in August 1942 some Soviet planes dropped bombs on Warsaw, a Jewish girl overheard her guardians saying: ‘Perhaps these bombs will fall on the Ghetto and finally put an end to the Jews’ (p. 22). ‘Elżunia, you are a lucky child, you will live in Poland where you won’t see a single Jew’ –said a woman to the  Jewish girl placed with her as a gentile orphan, showing her the glow over the burning Ghetto (p. 132). Unwanted were children who looked too Jewish, especially boys. ‘Ringelblum’s son had good looks, but was sent back to the Ghetto, because he was circumcised (p. 95). Bogdan (Dawid) Wojdowski did not look ‘good’, but a surgical re-attachment of his foreskin saved him every time the blackmailers checked him out: ‘It was a stigma for the rest of his life’. Żegota from the beginning of its existence appealed to the underground authorities for a proclamation against the plague of blackmailing that thwarted effective assistance (p. 210-211). ‘How many children and adults whom Poles helped at the risk of  their own lives perished because of the actions of other Poles? –asks the author rhetorically.

‘Not all people who helped Żegota knew they were helping the Jews. […] It was easier to find a hiding place for a case of weapons than for a single Jew’- admitted Władysław Bartoszewski (p. 143). According to Sendler: ‘I have to state that we received help solely because we claimed we were carrying out a patriotic Polish action […]. Taught by experience, we would not reveal that the children were Jewish […], but orphans of activists of the independence movement. We did not fear betrayal or blackmail, but rather the lack of cooperation of the welfare personnel’ (ibid). ‘Jews helping other Jews would not reveal their true identity,’ even to Jews. ‘Jonas Turkow described Wanda Wyrobkowa [as ] a noble Polish woman who entered the Ghetto and sought out children in order to remove them’. Maria Hochberg-Mariańska, a Å»egota co-worker in Krakow, confessed how hard it was to pretend in front of her imperiled brethren that she was not one of them (p. 135). Bartoszewski recalls that when his supervisor at the Delegatura’s Jewish Department asked whether  a Żegota secretary was  Jewish, he preferred to answer that she was not (ibid). There was also the network of Maurycy (Abraham Mojżesz) Herling-Grudziński, a defense attorney in whose allegedly Aryan apartment ‘forty escapees from the Ghetto found temporary shelter,’ while he was also passing money from Żegota to three hundred other persons (p. 139). Twenty Jews passed through the apartment of Maria and Henryk Palester (ten of them perished at the hands of blackmailers). One of the Jewish heroes saving other Jews was Adolf Berman’s wife, Basia Temkin, described as ‘the good spirit of hiding Jews’. Helena Rybak – a relative of Bogdan Wojdowski–constituted ‘a radiant example of Jews rescuing Jews’ (p. 177). ‘Wanda Wyrobkowa-Pawłowska so thoroughly erased her Jewish parents from her biography that she would not mention them to the Yad Vashem Committee and received the medal of Righteous,’ to which Jews are not entitled (p. 154). There may be other such cases, especially if the medal was awarded posthumously.

Irena Sendler, ‘like many members of the prewar left, believed that after 1945 Poland would become a land of justice and she declared her readiness to help building a new country’ (p. 380). As a high ranking official, she organized ‘communal welfare in the nightmare of postwar poverty’ (p. 381) and supported social reform. In 1946 she received the Golden Cross of Merit ‘for rescuing Jews’ (p. 284), in 1955 the Medal of the Decade (the tenth anniversary of the establishment of Peoples’ Poland), in 1956 a second Golden Cross of Merit and in 1963 the Knights Cross of Polonia Restituta. She was never persecuted by the regime, or ‘brutally interrogated by the UB (Security Police) on charges of hiding members of the AK’ (wartime Home Army) – as is erroneously written on the side of the Polin Museum (p. 377). One of her sons died soon after birth and the other succumbed to a chronic disease – but not in a ‘UB prison’ asis falsely claimed in a documentary film of the Polin museum(ibid). She joined the ruling PPR (Polish Workers Party) in 1947, and did not ‘against her wishes become a member of the PZPR’ (United Polish Workers Party) which succeeded it after the forced incorporation of the PPS. It is also untrue that she ‘soon quit the Party’ and because of this  suffered ‘harassment by the UB’ – as written on the wall of a school carrying her name. Her passport application of 1983 clearly shows that she was then ‘a member of the PZPR, local number 3’ in Warsaw’s Midtown (p. 378). In the years 1950-1956, she presided over the Health Commission of the Warsaw City Council. Bikont reminds us that the political ‘thaw’ of 1956 also caused a thawing of antisemitism (p. 306), and Irena, ‘the mother of the children of Holocaust’, was now treated as ‘the mother of Jews’. Her daughter recalls ‘breaking of windows’ (ibid). Teresa Körner, an Israeli immigrant, wrote in her testimony for Yad Vashem that at that time Irena thought about moving to Israel and asked about the possibilities for her there (ibid).  Yet in the Gomułka years, she was a Director of a Department in the Ministry of Health and later, vice-principal of ‘various technical schools for medical workers’. It is also untrue that the ‘Communist authorities tried by all means to erase the memory of Irena Sendler and her heroism’ - as is claimed by the Polin museum film mentioned above (p. 378). The regime merely tried to dilute the truth about Jewish martyrdom, and Irena herself – as Bikont points out – preferred to keep silent about her activity in Żegota, which had acted under the auspices of the now politically unacceptable émigré government (p. 380). The first time she wrote about her work for Żegota was in 1963 in the Bulletin of the Jewish Historical Institute, and, in a separate statement for the Institute, she named twenty nine persons who cooperated with her, plus fifteen others who were killed (p. 309). In 1965, together with Irena Schultz, she received the medal of the Righteous (p. 310). However,  ‘the Righteous came into being in a major way’ only in the late 1960s when their sacrifice and heroism was needed for the antisemitic propaganda allegations of ‘Jewish ingratitude’ (p. 312). Why did she not quit the Party at that time? ‘Our children, in spite of passing their exams very successfully, were not admitted to higher studies. Officially, this was because of a lack of places, but in reality, caused by the fact that their mother had helped the Jews’ – wrote Irena to Natan Gross who lived in Israel (p. 317). According to other sources, her children did not pass their exams with high marks, but I am convinced they would not have been admitted anyway because they were considered Jewish. One of Irena’s rescued friends recalled later that she was afraid that ‘if it came into the open that her [second] husband was Jewish, her granddaughter would not be allowed to graduate from high school’ (p. 432). It was out of concern for the future of her children that she thought of moving to Israel, and did not quit her Party membership. In a letter written thirty years later, she confirmed that seeing so much ‘knavery [draństwo] around herself,’ she felt ‘much fear for [her] children’ and feels it ‘to this day’ (p. 326). That was also likely the reason she did not voice opposition to a dishonest Polish film made in 1985 about the rescue of a Jewish child. She understood and shared the fear of those who had survived under an assumed identity and did not believe they had an obligation to reveal their descent. Perhaps they owed it to their ancestors ‘but why to our society’? – she asked. ‘Do we really need such truth?’ Like many of those she had rescued, she chose rather pragmatism and a moral compromise.

Bikont asks why did Irena Sendler ‘describe events that never took place, or add so much to those that did occur?’  I do not know the answer, but my mother, also exceptionally courageous and brave, inserted unreal situations and even dialogues when talking about our experiences. She did so even in her testimony to the Jewish Historical Commission. For example, she said that I knelt in front of Mrs. Tabor, imploring her to let us stay overnight, and Mrs. Tabor replied: ‘I’ll let you stay more than one night, my child’, and ‘after a month, she would not let us go.’ According to my mother, I was able to move even the Germans when they allegedly came to arrest her (fortunately not for being a Jew). Or that the haystack where she was hiding was pierced with bayonets; or that her overcoat was perforated with bullets - as if what she truly went true was not enough. ‘Perhaps this remained in her from the time of war when she had invent stories all the time…’ – speculates Bikont (p. 427). The same may be said about my mother.  

Irena sometimes despaired that ‘everything in [her] life went wrong’ and that her ‘ideals lay in ruins.’ She defended herself by saying that her ‘path chosen in her young years was right,’ yet conceded that ‘later, after 1945, there is great guilt for not noticing the grim and dark truth behind the lofty slogans’ (p. 344). As an eyewitness of that time and that truth, I do not agree with her self-accusations, because she always worked in good faith for the sake of others, not herself. She was one of those who easily yielded to lies because they wanted to believe—the ‘great guilt’ is rather on the side of the liars who, by the way, never admitted their guilt. For her, tragic events in Israel were a continuation of the war against the Jews, and she expressed those feelings in her letters to her Polish-Israeli friends. In one of them, she recalls those Jewish mothers who, ‘at the end of their sanity and in hope of saving their children, had to teach them that they were not their mothers, and to implant that ghastly lie in their minds.’ To her it was obvious that ‘to a people who survived such an unprecedented hell one cannot apply the same criteria as to others.’ She protested against politicians who ‘equated the Israelis with the Palestinians’ and warned that making such an equation ‘leads to a new crime’ (p. 336-337).

Bikont writes that in free Poland, too, ‘the story of Irena Sandler has had to be misrepresented so that it could be framed in the desired rightist-nationalist narrative’ (p. 380). The aim is not just to place her in the pantheon of national saints, but also to transform the experience of the Righteous – their acute loneliness, their feeling of fighting not only against the German occupiers, but against their Polish social environment as well – into an experience of the entire nation which will give all Poles a good reputation’ (p 381). This was needed especially after the publication of Jan Gross’s Neighbors. ‘There was a need for a hero after Jedwabne. I am a national alibi’ –  Sendler observed bitterly (p. 367).

There is no list of children whom she rescued, or at least  has not been found. Besides, she was not the only ‘causative force’ which made possible their rescue. In her testimony for Teresa Preker’s book on Żegota, Sendler herself enumerated twenty four persons who were responsible for concrete assistance (pp. 339-400). Å»egota’s Childrens’ Department had under its care initially one hundred and, at the end, about three hundred children plus an un-established number who were being helped on an ad hoc basis’ (p. 400). Bikont notes that children, who passed in succession through private homes, the Boduen Establishment and orphanages attached to nunneries, were registered three times as recipients of help. It is difficult to figure out Sendler’s estimated numbers, because sometimes she talked about all the children and adults assisted from September 1939 to 1945. Eventually, Sendler and her co-workers estimated that ‘the number of children rescued from the Warsaw Ghetto oscillated around two and a half thousand.’ If so, that number would include children rescued not only by Żegota – notes Bikont, and besides, ‘children taken out of the Ghetto needed considerable luck in order not to lose their lives on the Aryan side.’ Therefore we are talking here about children who were rescued, but not necessarily saved (p. 409). ‘How many perished at the hands of blackmailers?’ – She asks (ibid). Szymon Datner, a witness and historian of the Holocaust, estimated that about six hundred Jewish children survived in Warsaw (p. 410), and according to the report by the Central Committee of Jews in Poland, quoted in the book, about 5,000 in the entire country (p. 409). Bikont believes that this number is over-estimated, because survivors moved from one town to another and - looking for their relatives - registered with several Jewish organizations. In 1945 my mother and I were registered first at the Jewish Committee in Warsaw-Praga and one month later in Łódź. In 1946 I was, in succession, listed at the Jewish childrens’ home in Helenówek, the Jewish childrens’ sanatorium in Otwock, the Jewish childrens’ preventorium in Głuszyca, and, in March 1947, again as a newcomer in Helenówek. And I appeared on those lists as Herszek Grinberg, Henryk Grinberg, Herszek Grynberg or Henryk Grynberg – thus not necessarily the same child. ‘Besides’, as one of the rescued speculated, ‘wouldn’t it be shameful for the Polish people, if a single woman rescued half of all the Jewish children who survived? It would mean that […] one hundred Sendlers would have been sufficient to have saved a quarter of a million’ (p. 410).

Many, if not most, of those saved that appear in Bikont’s book, had problems with returning to their Jewish identity and reality. ‘I am unable to be Jewish’ – confesses Elżbieta Ficowska saved as an infant by a good gentile woman of means who did not need any support from Å»egota. Elżbieta also withdrew the statements she had initially made for this Bikont’s book which might be taken as critical of Sendler, maintaining that ‘destroying myths is very harmful today when authority is so much needed, and one mustn’t sadden the thousands of children whose schools carry the name of Irena Sandler.’ Therefore one should not ‘call into question the number of two and a half thousand children saved by her, and write that she was a member of PZPR’ (p. 395). It is hard to believe, but even Władysław Bartoszewski, the historian, tried to convince Teresa ToraÅ„ska that by writing an unvarnished  biography ‘she would diminish Irena Sendler’s greatness, which would in turn hurt the image of Poland’ (p. 428). Michał Głowiński, a child survivor and a literary historian, who for almost fifty years after Holocaust tried not to be Jewish, admits that when he was preparing the publication of his memoir, Irena Sendler insisted: ‘You have to write that I saved two and a half thousand children,’ and so he did, deciding that ‘one does not refuse Irena Sendler’ (p. 409) –thus undermining the value of writing about the Holocaust.

I agree with the book’s author that Sendler unjustly – and I would add irresponsibly – condemned Vera Gran as a ‘criminal and a traitor of her brethren’ (p. 415). But I do not agree with the reproach that Sendler, though ‘left-oriented by nature, assumed a position of a right-wing hawk in matters of the Palestinian conflict,’ and that ‘her pronouncements on Israel show no trace of empathy for the Palestinians’ (ibid).  She could have been misinformed about Vera Gran, but in her feelings for Israel – the asylum for tens of thousands of survivors, including those she herself had helped to survive – her moral compass was unfailing, contrary to that of those of the left who erred in 1945, betrayed the Polish Jews in 1968, and compete with the right in ‘anti-Zionism’ today.

‘Every Jewish child saved with my help justifies my existence on this earth…’- she said accepting the Order of the White Eagle, Poland’s highest distinction. She definitely helped more than any other single person and so she does not need any myth – the truth is quite sufficient. ‘You were a little island of goodness in a vast sea of hatred’ –a schoolboy from Zielona Góra told her (p. 372). Fortunately, she was not the only one.

Some flaw and errors: The book’s title Sendler in Hiding seems incomprehensible and misleading.  ‘Akcja O’ (standing for oszczędność) was a call for saving money and materials and not for ‘competition in workplaces’ (p. 295). Stalin was called the leader of the working masses and of the entire progressive mankind, but not ‘the leader of the revolution’ - that title was reserved for Lenin (p. 300). There was Central Committee of Jews in Poland, not ‘Central Committee of Polish Jews’ (pages 287, 317 and 399) as not all the Jews in Poland were Polish and not all Polish Jews were in Poland. And there was no such thing as ‘Central Commission of Polish Jews.’ The evaluation of a certain book as ‘literature of the highest order’ (p. 403) is arbitrary, unexplained and needless.

This article originally appeared as  ‘Wysepka dobroci’ in Nr 225 11/2017)