Holocaust survivors meet their angel

Published: May 22, 2007 | 6268th good news item since 2003

The pilgrims keep coming, seeking out the fragile 97-year-old woman in black in her tiny nursing home room filled with pictures and flowers.

The attention tires Irena Sendler sometimes. She never sought credit for smuggling 2,500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto anyway. Not for risking execution to save other people’s children, or holding out under torture by the Nazis, or enduring decades as a non-person under the communist regime that followed.

She once dismissed her wartime deeds as merely “the justification of my existence on this Earth, and not a title to glory.” “I’m very tired—it’s too much for me,” Sendler said recently of the incessant visits, during a brief meeting with a reporter. And giving a little laugh, she adds a bit sadly: “I feel my age.”

Sendler in recent years has gained a measure of celebrity amid broader interest in Holocaust heroes stoked by the film Schindler’s List. Poland’s parliament honored her in a March 14 ceremony and the country is pushing her candidacy—mostly symbolic—for the Nobel Peace Prize.

It is late recognition for an extraordinary life.

Sendler, a social worker, began organising financial and material help for Jews after the war began in 1939 with the Nazi invasion.

Posing as a nurse and wearing a Star of David armband—in solidarity and to blend in— Sendler would enter the Warsaw Ghetto, the hellish, hunger-and-disease-stalked prison enclave the Nazis established as a prelude to deporting and murdering Poland’s Jews in death camps.

A Polish doctor forged papers stating she was a nurse. The Nazis, who feared the typhoid fever spreading in the ghetto, were happy to let Polish medical workers handle the sick and the dead.

She persuaded Jewish parents that their children had a better chance to live if she smuggled them out and placed them with Catholic families.

In hopes of reuniting them later with their birth parents, she wrote the children’s names and new addresses, in code, on slips of paper and buried them in two jars in an assistant’s yard in 9 Lekarska Street. That hope never came true; almost all the parents died in Hitler’s camps.

What the jar did save was their true, Jewish names.

Published in Life
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