Pole who saved 2,500 children from the Nazis dies

By Claire Soares
Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Irena Sendlerowa, a Polish woman who smuggled thousands of children out of the Warsaw Ghetto saving them from certain death at the hands of the Nazis, has died at the age of 98.

As a social worker, she had neither the financial might nor the contact book of Oskar Schindler, to whom she is almost inevitably compared, yet she rescued almost double the number of children, about 2,500 in total. The tricks of her trade were not elaborate: tool boxes, trolleys, suitcases and old sewer pipes were used to smuggleJewish babies and toddlers out of the ghetto, undetected by the Nazis.

“Her courageous activities … serve as a beacon of light to the world, inspiring hope and restoring faith in the innate goodness of mankind,” said Avner Shalev, the chairman of Israel’s Holocaust memorial centre, Yad Vashem.

Officially recognised as a national hero by the Polish parliament last year as well as being nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, Ms Sendlerowa only belatedly received the acclaim she deserved, living in relative obscurity until a decade ago.

That her story was almost forgotten was in part the legacy of the anti-Semitism fostered by Poland’s postwar Communist regime, and in part her own modesty.

“I continue to have qualms of conscience that I did so little,” she said in one of her last interviews at the nursing home in Warsaw where she spent her twilight years.

“She modestly says that she was just doing what any human being would do, but there’s no other word for it apart from heroism,” said Elzbieta Ficowska, one of the children spirited out of the ghetto. “The survival instinct is to save ourselves but she saved others.”

The Warsaw Ghetto was established by the Nazis to pen the city’s Jewish population pending deportation to concentration and extermination camps. Between 1941 and 1943, starvation, disease and deportations reduced its population from about 450,000 to 71,000. In 1943 the people took up arms in the first urban mass revolt against the Nazi occupation of Europe, an uprising that was brutally crushed.

Once outside the ghetto’s 10ft walls, topped with broken glass, the rescued children were farmed out to Polish foster parents, where they were provided with false identities and taught Polish and Christian prayers so they could fool prying Gestapo officers.

Yet Ms Sendlerowa was anxious that the rescued infants have the possibility of being reunited with their birth parents after the war so she copied each child’s details on to two separate cigarette papers – a duplicate archive that she kept in two glass bottles buried in the garden. Sadly these records would ultimately serve little purpose for by the end of the war, many of the children’s relatives had been slaughtered, most at the Treblinka, where an estimated 300,000 Jews were murdered in the summer of 1942 alone.

Ms Sendlerowa ran huge risks. One morning a squad of Nazi soldiers stormed into her house and carted her off to Gestapo headquarters, where she was tortured. The marks left by what she called “those German supermen” stayed on her body for the rest of her life. She would have been killed had her colleagues not managed to bribe Nazi officers and halt her planned execution. Although the German authorities plastered Warsaw with posters, announcing that Ms Sendlerowa had died by firing squad, she was in fact dumped in the woods, her arms and legs broken and unconscious, but still alive.

“People who stand up for others, for the weak, are very rare,” Marek Edelman, the last surviving commander of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, told Polish television. “The world would have been a better place if there were more of them.”