A Heroic Life Remembered

Irena SendlerIrena Sendler, a Polish social worker who helped lead a smuggling operation that rescued thousands of children from Warsaw's Jewish ghetto during World War II, died May 12 at a hospital in that city. She was 98.

In 2007, NASW submitted a letter of recommendation to the Norwegian Nobel Committee in Olso, Norway, in support of nominating Sendler for the Nobel Peace Prize. Signed by NASW Executive Director Elizabeth J. Clark on behalf of NASW, the letter stated that Sendler's effort to save more than 2,000 children during World War II was an inspiration to social workers everywhere.

While Sendler was not nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize that year, NASW was proud to be among the many organizations that highlighted her heroic accomplishments during the Nazi occupation of her homeland. Clark said Sendler used her social work skills and credentials in a unique way during the war to save 2,500 Jewish children living in Poland.

She cleverly utilized her qualifications to enter the Warsaw ghetto and worked with others — mostly Polish social workers — to transport the children to safe places until the war's end.

As a way to help reunite families after the war, Sendler devised a system of recording information about the children and then buried it in bottles to avoid detection. Sendler was eventually arrested and sentenced to death, but she managed to escape and live in hiding until the war was over. Sendler then worked to reunite the children when possible. Unfortunately, many of the children's family members had been killed in Treblinka.

Attention to Sendler's heroic efforts has been invigorated in recent years thanks in part to students at Uniontown High School in rural Kansas. They produced a play on Sendler's life called "Life in a Jar" that has received international acclaim. Development of a major motion picture about her story is also under way.

Clark said that the epitome of being a social worker is the compassion and dedication to causes larger than yourself, which Sendler's life clearly demonstrated. "The profession of social work is forever indebted to her courage and activism and is deeply saddened by her recent passing," Clark said.

Get more information: Life in a Jar Website.