Irena Sendler, a Polish social worker who helped save some 2,500 Jewish children from the Nazis by smuggling them out of the Warsaw Ghetto and giving them false identities — died at age 98.
Sendler died at a Warsaw hospital on Monday morning, her daughter, Janina Zgrzembska, told The Associated Press. She had been hospitalized since last month with pneumonia.
Born in Warsaw, Sendler served as a social worker with the city’s welfare department, masterminding the risky rescue operations of Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto during Nazi Germany’s brutal World War II occupation.
Records show that Sendler’s team of some 20 people saved nearly 2,500 children from the Warsaw Ghetto between October 1940 and April 1943, when the Nazis burned the ghetto, shooting the residents or sending them to death camps.
Under the pretext of inspecting the ghetto’s sanitary conditions during a typhoid outbreak, Sendler and her assistants went inside in search of children who could be smuggled out and given a chance of survival by living as Catholics.
Babies and small children were smuggled out in ambulances and in trams, sometimes wrapped up as packages. Teenagers escaped by joining teams of workers forced to labor outside the ghetto. They were placed in families, orphanages, hospitals or convents.
In hopes of one day uniting the children with their families — most of whom perished in the Nazis’ death camps — Sendler wrote the children’s real names on slips of paper that she kept at home.
‘A true miracle’
When German police came to arrest her in 1943, an assistant managed to hide the slips, which Sendler later buried in a jar under an apple tree in an associate’s yard. Some 2,500 names were recorded.
“It took a true miracle to save a Jewish child,” Elzbieta Ficowska, who was saved by Sendler’s team as a baby in 1942, recalled in an AP interview in 2007. “Mrs. Sendler saved not only us, but also our children and grandchildren and the generations to come.”
After World War II, Sendler worked as a social welfare official and director of vocational schools, continuing to assist some of the children she rescued.
Honored in Jerusalem
In 1965, Sendler became one of the first so-called Righteous Gentiles honored by the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem for wartime heroics. Poland’s communist leaders at that time would not allow her to travel to Israel; she collected the award in 1983.
Despite the Yad Vashem honor, Sendler was largely forgotten in her homeland. Only in her final years, confined to a nursing home, did she finally become one of Poland’s most respected figures, with President Lech Kaczynski and other politicians backing a campaign that put her name forward for the Nobel Peace Prize.
The woman who saved thousands of children from the Holocaust death camps. Ms. Sendler passed away on May 12, 2008.
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