By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 13, 2008
Irena Sendler, 98, a Polish Catholic social worker who helped lead a smuggling operation that rescued thousands of children from Warsaw's Jewish ghetto during World War II, died May 12 at a hospital in that city. She had pneumonia.
After the German invasion of Poland in 1939, an estimated 400,000 Jews were forced into the ghetto, the size of 16 city blocks. They faced disease, execution or deportation to concentration camps, and the hopelessness led to a ghetto revolt in early 1943 that ended in a slaughter by the Nazis.
Mrs. Sendler, aiding Jews since the start of the war, became an early activist in the clandestine group Zegota. The underground movement -- whose members faced execution if caught -- formed in 1942 after the deportation of 280,000 of Warsaw's Jews to the Treblinka death camp.
Mrs. Sendler used her senior position with the city's welfare department to win access to and from the ghetto and set up a network of 25 associates to help organize escapes and falsify documents.
Under the code name Jolanta, she became one of Zegota's most successful workers. She eventually took charge of Zegota's children's division and helped spirit the children out of the ghetto in ambulances by hiding them under blankets, in burlap sacks and toolboxes and sometimes in coffins.
To distract German guards, she kept a barking dog on the front seat of her ambulance to drown out the cries of young children who feared separation from their parents.
Mrs. Sendler used her contacts at orphanages and convents to keep Jewish children safe until the war's end, often under Christianized names. To alert nuns to a new group of children ready for pick up, she could write, "I have clothing for the convent."
The intention was to return all the children to their parents, although the death rate of the adult population made the task largely impossible. But for years Mrs. Sendler guarded the real names of the children and their parents, writing them on tissue paper and burying the lists in jars under an apple tree at an associate's home.
This method came about, she said, because the Gestapo surprised her at home one night.
"Fortunately one of my liaison girls demonstrated her presence of mind and hid the list in her underwear," she said. "After that for safety reasons I never kept the lists at home. As more children were saved the bottles were dug up and new names added to the list."
On Oct. 20, 1943, the Gestapo arrested her and took her to Pawiak prison, where subversives were tortured and killed. Over three months, her detainers used clubs and other devices to fracture her legs and feet.
She did not inform on Zegota leaders and was sentenced to death by firing squad, but a bribed guard helped her escape and marked her as having been executed. Mrs. Sendler remained incognito for the rest of the war -- she could not even risk attending her mother's funeral -- and continued to help Zegota.
Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Israel, recognized Mrs. Sendler in 1965 as "Righteous Among the Nations," the designation for gentiles who aided Jews during the war. The number of children saved by Mrs. Sendler and her partners is unknown, according to Yad Vashem, but some estimates by survivors groups claim more than 2,500.
In 1995, Mrs. Sendler told the British newspaper the Express that she remained devastated by conversations with Jewish families whose children she tried to help.
"We witnessed terrible scenes," she said. "Father agreed but mother didn't. Grandmother cuddled the child tenderly and, weeping bitterly, said, 'I won't give away my grandchild at any price.
"We sometimes had to leave those unfortunate families without taking their children from them. I'd go back there the next day and often found that everyone had been taken to the Umschlagplatz railway siding for transport to the death camps."
Irena Krzyzanowska was born in Warsaw on Feb. 15, 1910, and was raised in the suburb of Otwock.
She attributed her interest in social justice to her father, a doctor who died treating poor Jewish patients during a typhus epidemic in 1917. She graduated from the University of Warsaw before turning to social work.
After World War II, Mrs. Sendler lived in relative obscurity and struggled financially under the Communist regime while remaining in social work.
Coverage of her wartime role appeared in news articles and in the Marek Halter documentary "Tzedek: The Righteous" (1994). But it was a touring play about her life, "Life in a Jar," written by four Protestant Kansas high school girls in 1999, that won her the greatest recognition.
In recent years, a biography of Mrs. Sendler called her "Mother of the children of the Holocaust," and Polish President Lech Kaczynski awarded her the Order of the White Eagle, Poland's highest civilian decoration.
"Every Jewish child who survived due to my efforts has justified my existence on this Earth but is no cause for praise," Mrs. Sendler told the Express. "We who were rescuing children are not some kind of heroes. That term irritates me greatly. The opposite is true. I continue to have qualms of conscience that I did so little. I could have done more. This regret will follow me to my death."
She was twice married and divorced from Mieczyslaw Sendler. Her second husband, Stefan Zgrzembski, died in the late 1950s, and a son from that marriage, Adam, died in 1999.
Survivors include a daughter from her second marriage, Janka Zgrzembska of Warsaw, and a granddaughter.