Obituaries

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Irena Sendler

Irena Sendler, Holocaust Heroine, Dies at 98

May 12, 2008 04:15 PM
by Liz Colville
Sendler, who helped thousands of Jewish children into hiding during the Holocaust, died May 12, 2008, in Warsaw, Poland, after a long illness.

‘Female Schindler’ Dies in Warsaw

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During World War II, Irena Sendler worked for a unit of the Polish underground, Zegota, which was formed to help Jews in hiding. As a health worker, Sendler was issued a pass to come and go from the Warsaw Ghetto, according to The Holocaust: Crimes, Heroes and Villains Web site. In 1942 and 1943, she led some 2,500 children—twice as many as Oskar Schindler—out of the ghetto to safe hiding places.

Dubbed the “Female Schindler,” Sendler saved babies and children while wearing a Star of David armband to show solidarity with those whom she protected, writes the Telegraph in its obituary of Sendler. Though Sendler was technically a welfare worker, distributing medicine and supplies in the Warsaw Ghetto, she simultaneously “formulated extraordinary schemes to spirit children to safety.”

Sendler came from a Catholic family, and her father, an early Polish Socialist, was a doctor who attended mostly poor Jewish patients. When Sendler began her work for Zegota, she relied on religious establishments to traffic and protect the children, forging thousands of documents for children who “entered the church as Jews and exited as Christians,” the Jewish Virtual Library explained.

In October of 1943, Sendler was arrested by the Gestapo after a colleague gave away her name while being tortured. Sendler herself was then imprisoned and tortured, but refused to give away any names, either of colleagues or children in hiding. She was sentenced to death, but was rescued after a German officer accepted a bribe and allowed her to escape.
Sometimes, she used ambulances to smuggle children out of the sealed area. Sendler remarked that the cooperation of many other people helped her efforts: “No one ever refused to take a child from me."

Just a year before her death, Sendler was honored as a national heroine by Polish government, and given the title “righteous gentile” by the Israeli Holocaust Memoriam Centre, Yad Vashem.

Background: Sharing Sendler’s Story

Irena Sendler's story shows how building a vast network of associates and covertly planning could deliver Holocaust victims to safety in convents and other havens. Children were sometimes sedated and carried in potato sacks or coffins. They were also given Christian names.

There was a movement to nominate Sendler for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2007. The New York Sun commemorated Sendler with an article describing her achievements and goals during the Holocaust, particularly her desire to track every child’s real name in the hopes she could restore their identities to them after the war. “Mrs. Sendler stashed the identities of the children she saved in jars and buried the jars under an apple tree. Her plan was to dig up the jars after the war and reunite the children with their families.” The Sun notes that the effort to have her nominated Sendler’s nomination was partly due to the efforts of the four schoolgirls from Kansas and their play, “Life in a Jar: The Irena Sendler Project” which was written in 1999.

Reference: ‘Life in a Jar: The Irena Sendler Project’

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