Polish woman who saved thousands of children from Holocaust has died

Irena Sendler

Irena Sendler

A Polish Catholic social worker who saved more than 2,500 Jewish children from the Nazi death camps, died on Monday in Warsaw.

The story of Irena Sendler was only made public nine ago, when four high school students from Kansas, wrote a play about her.

Megan Felt, one of the students, said: "Irena wasn't even five feet tall, but she walked into the Warsaw ghetto daily and faced certain death if she was caught. Her strength and courage showed us we can stand up for what we believe in."

Mrs Sendler was born on 15 February, 1910, in Otwock, a small town near Warsaw. She was an only child whose parents raised her to care about those in need. She was especially influenced by her father, a doctor who defied anti-Semites by treating sick Jews during outbreaks of typhoid fever. He died of the disease when Irena was just nine. Irena studied at Warsaw University and was a social worker when the German occupation of Poland began in 1939. In 1940, after the Nazis herded Jews into the ghetto and built a wall separating it from the rest of Warsaw, disease ran rampant.

Social workers were not allowed in the ghetto, but Mrs Sendler passed herself off as a sanitary worker, allowed to bring in food, clothes and medicine. By 1942, when it became clear what the Nazis were planning to do to the Jews, Mrs Sendler began to smuggle adults and children out of the ghetto. One of them was the man she married.

It is believed she rescued about 500 people by herself. She then joined the Polish underground organization, Zegota, and recruited ten of her closest friends and with them rescued about 2,500 Jewish children. They carried out babies and children in suitcases, trolleys and bags. The penalty for assisting a Jew to escape the ghetto was death. Most of the children brought out of the ghetto by Mrs Sendler's group were taken to convents, orphanages and homes and given non-Jewish aliases. In the hope of reuniting them with families later, Mrs Sendler kept their true names on thin pieces of paper which she rolled up and kept in jars buried in a friend's garden.

Irena was arrested by the Nazis in 1943 and tortured, but refused to reveal any information. During one torture session, the Gestapo broke her legs, and she fainted from pain. When she awoke, a German officer helped her to escape. He also put her name on a list of executed prisoners. When she had recovered from her injuries she resumed her rescue efforts.

After the war ended Irena unearthed the jars and began trying to return the children to their families. For many, there were no relatives left alive. Many of the children were adopted by Polish families. Others were sent to Israel.

In 1965 she was recognized by Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust Authority, as a Righteous Gentile, an honour given to non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. In her own country, however, her work went unrecognised for years, partly because anti-Semitism was still rife.

It wasn't until the year 2000 that her story hit the headlines in Poland, when the group of high school students from Kansas wrote their play, and a Jewish organisation sponsored their visit to Irena in Warsaw. Irena gave them more information to expand their play. The drama has been performed more than 250 times in the USA, Canada and Poland. After each performance, the actors used to pass a jar for Mrs Sendler, raising enough to move her into a nursing home. They have now started a charity called the Life in a Jar Foundation, which has raised more than £35,000 to help pay for the care of the now elderly Holocaust rescuers.

In 2003 Pope John Paul II wrote a personal letter to Irena commending her great work and example to others. Recently Mrs Sendler was honored by the Polish government and nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, but she always shrugged off praise, saying: "Every child saved with my help is the justification of my existence on this Earth., and not a title to glory."

For more information see: www.irenasendler.org/

Sources: agencies/Polish Radio

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