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3 Extraordinary WWII Heroines Who Changed History and Inspired Us All

Photo by Julian Zett on Unsplash

What makes someone a heroine?

Saving lives? Doing the right thing in spite of great risk, even at the expense of one’s own safety?

The following three women all fit this description to a tee. They were normal women placed in extraordinary circumstances, who rose to the occasion and changed the world:

Irena Sendler: Angel of the Warsaw Ghetto

“Every child saved with my help and the help of all the wonderful secret messengers..is the justification of my existence on this earth, and not a title to glory.”

Irena Sendler was a Polish social worker who was not yet 30 when World War II broke out in her country.

She watched as the German Nazis took over Poland and established the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw. With hundreds of thousands of residents crammed into a tiny space, people began dying of the poor hygienic conditions.

As a non-Jewish social worker, Irena Sendler convinced officials to allow her inside the ghetto to treat the people within. Sendler risked her own life to smuggle children out of the ghetto, using false identity papers to smuggle the children abroad.

Sendler kept careful track of the identities of each of the children, writing them down on paper and securing them in a jar which she buried underground.

When Sendler’s activities were discovered in 1943, she was imprisoned and tortured by officials. But Sendler resolutely kept her mouth shut.

Finally, Sendler was sentenced to execution for her “criminal activities” and only rescued at the last minute by friends in the underground resistance movement.

Yet when she was freed, Sendler didn’t go home: She returned to her underground activities and was forced to go into hiding.

Sendler and her colleagues rescued, in total, at least 2,500 Jewish children over the course of their smuggling activities.

For decades after the war, Sendler’s efforts were hidden from the public eye as she lived a private life in Warsaw. Then in the late 1990s, a group of high school students in rural Kansas were challenged by their history teacher to take on an independent project.

The students discovered Irena’s story and were stunned that they had never heard of her before, considering her incredible impact on the lives of thousands of children and families during the Holocaust.

Even more incredibly, when the students tried to track down Irena Sendler’s grave, they discovered that she was still alive!

The students wrote an original play based on Irena Sendler’s story, called “Life in a Jar” and flew to Poland to meet Sendler in person.

Partly through the efforts of the Kansas students, Sendler was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize twice, in 2007 and 2008. Finally, nearly six decades after her heroic actions, Irena Sendler was discovered and honored for her part in saving the lives of thousands of innocent children.

Irena Sendler passed away in 2008 at the age of 98, and her story was retold on film, in The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler, which came out in 2009.

wikimedia commons

Corrie Ten Boom: Guardian of the Hiding Place

“The measure of a life, after all, is not its duration, but its donation.”

Corrie Ten Boom was the daughter of a Christian Dutch watchmaker who, along with their family, saved the lives of many war refugees — mostly Jews — by hiding them in a secret room.

During the war, food was scarce, and only non-Jewish Dutch citizens were allowed to have ration cards, required for obtaining food coupons. Ten Boom, however, acquired a hundred extra ration cards and distributed them to every Jew she met.

The Dutch Resistance heard of Ten Boom’s family and helped them build a secret room and safety buzzer to aid their work of rescuing Jews and other war refugees.

In 1944, Corrie Ten Boom and her family were betrayed by a Dutch informant, and arrested. Corrie’s father died not long after. The six refugees that the Ten Booms were hiding at the time, however, were all able to escape.

Corrie and her sister Betsie were sent to a concentration camp, and then to a women’s labor camp in Germany, where they rallied their fellow prisoners’ spirits by holding secret Bible studies with a Bible she had managed to smuggle in. Betsie died in Germany, but Corrie was released not long after, due to a clerical error.

Once she returned home, Corrie Ten Boom opened her home to mentally disabled people, who had been targeted for extinction by the eugenics-obsessed Nazis.

After the war, Ten Boom set up a rehabilitation center in the Netherlands for Dutch citizens who had collaborated with the Germans during the German occupation. In 1950, the center was open to anyone who needed care.

Corrie Ten Boom later traveled internationally in more than 60 countries, telling her story and inspiring others with her message of faith and forgiveness. She also wrote a best-selling book about her family’s experience during the war, The Hiding Place, which was also made into a film in 1975.

Corrie Ten Boom passed away in 1983, and a sequel film titled Return to the Hiding Place was released in 2013, based on the story of the Dutch resistance, from the perspective of Hans Poley, one of the Ten Boom’s first wartime refugee guests.

wikimedia commons

Miep Gies: Anne Frank’s Protectress

“Even an ordinary secretary or a housewife or a teenager can, within their own small ways, turn on a small light in a dark room.”

Almost everyone has heard of Anne Frank and her famous diary, but many do not know the story of the woman who made the diary possible.

Miep Gies not only sheltered the Frank family for two years, allowing Anne to compose her now-well-known diary. She also saved the diary after the Frank family were betrayed and killed, returning it to the only survivor — Anne’s dad, Otto Frank — after the war.

Hermine “Miep” Gies was born in Vienna, but sent to live in the Netherlands after World War I. Gies loved her adopted Dutch family so much that she ended up staying there.

In 1933, Gies became Otto Frank’s secretary at his trading company, and became good friends with the entire Frank family. During World War II, Miep, her husband, and several other brave souls teamed up to hide two Jewish families in the Secret Annex behind Frank’s former office.

When the Frank family was betrayed, Gies tried to bribe officers to get the families released, but was unsuccessful. However, Gies saved Anne Frank’s diary and hid it in a desk.

In 1945, after Otto Frank discovered that his family had died in the concentration camps, Miep returned his daughter Anne’s diary to him.

Anne Frank’s diary was later published and became an internationally renowned bestselling book. In 1987, Miep Gies also wrote her own book: Memories of Anne Frank.

Miep Gies was involved in the Anne Frank House up to her death in 2010. She was 100 years old.

Otto Frank and Miep Gies, wikimedia commmons

Unsung Heroines

“I am not a hero,” Miep Gies once wrote in her memoir.

And indeed, all three of these incredible women had no delusions of grandeur, nor did they have a speck of ego or arrogance.

Yet it was their very selflessness that made these three heroic. Irena Sendler, Corrie Ten Boom, and Miep Gies saved lives at risk of their own, endured the loss beloved friends and family, and continued serving and helping other wounded people all their lives.

They taught through their example the value of quiet courage, staunch devotion to doing the right thing, and true humility. Their stories have touched and continue to touch the hearts and lives of people around the world to this day.

And thus, although these three women never saw themselves as heroines, that is exactly what they are to us today.

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3 Extraordinary WWII Heroines Who Changed History and Inspired Us All was originally published in The Mission on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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