Irena Sendler, War Hero.
Modern society recognizes that attrocities are committed not only by the people who commit them but also by the people who do nothing to stop them. Still, there are always too few who know right from wrong, too few who refuse to accept wrong ideas. Most of all, there are too few who are willing to speak when simple words are needed. Of them there are fewer still who put themselves in harms way. These people make a difference and their actions resonate in our hearts. Their experiences warn of the trials we might face some day and they encourage us to speak out more boldly to try to avoid those trials in our lives.
Records show that Sendler's team of about 20 people saved nearly 2,500 children from the Warsaw Ghetto between October 1940 and its final liquidation in April 1943, when the Nazis burned the ghetto, shooting the residents or sending them to death camps.
"Every child saved with my help and the help of all the wonderful secret messengers, who today are no longer living, is the justification of my existence on this earth, and not a title to glory," Sendler said in 2007 in a letter to the Polish Senate after lawmakers honored her efforts in 2007.
"The term 'hero' irritates me greatly. The opposite is true. I continue to have pangs of conscience that I did so little," Sendler said in one of her last interviews.
Mrs. Sendler died today at age 98 in Warsaw, Poland. She is survived by her daughter and a granddaughter.
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In December 1942, the newly created Children's Section of the Żegota Council for Assistance to the Jews, a council to aid Jews, nominated her (under her cover name Jolanta) to head its children's department. As an employee of the Social Welfare Department, she had a special permit to enter the Warsaw Ghetto, to check for signs of typhus, something the Nazis feared would spread beyond the ghetto. During the visits, she wore a Star of David as a sign of solidarity with the Jewish people and so as not to call attention to herself.
She cooperated with the Children's Section of the Municipal Administration, linked with the RGO (Central Welfare Council), a Polish Relief Organization tolerated under German supervision. She organized the smuggling of Jewish children from the Ghetto, carrying them out in boxes, suitcases and trolleys. The children were placed with Polish families, the Warsaw orphanage of the Sisters of the Family of Mary or Roman Catholic convents such as the Sisters Little Servants of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Mary at Turkowice and Chotomów. Some were smuggled to priests in parish rectories where they could be further hidden. She kept lists of the names, hidden in jars, in order to keep track of their original and new identities.
Arrested in 1943 by the Gestapo, she was severely tortured and sentenced to death. The Żegota saved her by bribing the German guards on the way to her execution. She was left in woods, unconcious and with broken arms and limbs. Officially, she was listed on public bulletin boards as among those executed. Even in hiding, she continued her work for the Jewish children.