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Irena Sendler who saved 2,500 Jewish children died

Irena Sendler who saved 2,500 Jewish children died

Irena Sendler (15 February 1910 – 12 May 2008) was a Polish Roman Catholic nurse/social worker who served in the Polish Underground during World War II, and as head of children’s section of Żegota, an underground resistance organization in German-occupied Warsaw. Assisted by some two dozen other Żegota members, Sendler smuggled some 2,500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto and then provided them with false identity documents and with housing outside the Ghetto, saving those children during the Holocaust.

The Nazis eventually discovered her activities, tortured her, and sentenced her to death, but she managed to evade execution and survive the war. In 1965, Sendler was recognized by the State of Israel as a Righteous among the Nations. Late in life she was awarded Poland’s highest honor for her wartime humanitarian efforts. She appears on a silver 2009 Polish commemorative coin honoring some of the Polish Righteous among the Nations.

She smuggled out the children in suitcases, ambulances, coffins, sewer pipes, rucksacks and, on one occasion, even a tool box. Those old enough to ask knew their saviour only by her codename “Jolanta”.

But she kept hidden a meticulous record of all their real names and new identities  –  created to protect the Jewish youngsters from the pursuing Nazis  –  so they might later be re-united with their families. By any measure, Irena Sendler was one of the most remarkable and noble figures to have emerged from the horrors of World War II. But, until recently, her extraordinary compassion and heroism went largely unrecorded.

When the Germans finally caught her, the Roman Catholic social worker had managed to save 2,500 Jewish babies and toddlers from deportation to the concentration camps. She had spirited them out of the heavily-guarded Jewish ghetto in Warsaw, and hidden their identities in two glass jars buried under an apple tree in her neighbour’s garden.

She died last week, in her modest Warsaw apartment, aged 98. What a woman she was. For once, the term “heroine” is no exaggeration, though such plaudits did not sit easily with her.

She said: “I was brought up to believe that a person must be rescued when drowning, regardless of religion and nationality. The term ‘heroine’ irritates me greatly. The opposite is true. I continue to have pangs of conscience that I did so little.”

Irena always ascribed her desire to do good to the influence of her parents, in particular her father, a Polish physician in a small town near Warsaw.

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