Irena Sendler, Lifeline to Young Jews, Is Dead at 98
By DENNIS HEVESI
Published: May 13, 2008
Irena Sendler, a Roman Catholic who created a network of rescuers in Poland, who smuggled about 2,500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw ghetto in World War II, some of them in coffins, died Monday in Warsaw. She was 98.
The death was confirmed by Stanlee Stahl, executive vice president of the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, an organization that supports rescuers of Holocaust victims.
Mrs. Sendler was head of the children's bureau of Zegota, an underground organization set up to save Jews after the Nazis invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939. Soon after the invasion, approximately 450,000 Jews, about 30 percent of Warsaw's population, were crammed into a tiny section of the city and barricaded behind seven-foot-high walls.
On April 19, 1943, the Nazis began what they expected would be a rapid liquidation of the ghetto. It took them more than a month to quell the Warsaw ghetto uprising. By then, only about 55,000 Jews were still alive; most of them were sent to death camps.
Also by then, however, Mrs. Sendler's group of about 30 volunteers, mostly women, had managed to slip hundreds of infants, young children and teenagers to safety.
"She was the inspiration and the prime mover for the whole network that saved those 2,500 Jewish children," Debórah Dwork, the Rose professor of Holocaust history at Clark University in Massachusetts, said Monday. Professor Dwork, the author of "Children With a Star" (Yale University Press, 1991), said about 400 children had been directly smuggled out by Mrs. Sendler.
Elzbieta Ficowska, a baby in 1942, was one of them. "Mrs. Sendler saved not only us, but also our children and grandchildren and the generations to come," Ms. Ficowska told The Associated Press last year.
There were several ruses by which the children were saved. Mrs. Sendler was a social worker for the city, with a pass that allowed her to enter the ghetto. "The Jews were all disease carriers, as far as the Nazis were concerned," Professor Dwork said. "They put up quarantine signs throughout the ghetto." Forgeries of the government pass allowed other members of Zegota to enter the ghetto as well. They went in day after day to persuade Jewish parents to let them rescue children.
The most common escape route, Professor Dwork said, was through the Warsaw Municipal Law Courts, which abutted the ghetto.
"There were underground corridors that had entrances on the ghetto side," she said. "The Polish police were bribed to allow the traffic. Parents were told to dress the children as well as possible, certainly without wearing a star."
For a time, the ghetto's boundaries extended to the Jewish cemetery. "Some children were placed in coffins, their mouths taped, or they were sedated so they wouldn't cry," said Ms. Stahl, of the Jewish foundation. "Other children were smuggled out in potato sacks."
Sometimes an ambulance wagon, with a driver accompanied by a dog, took children through the gates. "Children were under the floorboard," Ms. Stahl said. "The barking dog would drown out a child's cries."
A church straddled the ghetto border. "Children would be taken into the church, go into the confessional, and come out with papers as a little Catholic," Ms. Stahl said. They would be taken to a Christian home, a convent or an orphanage.
In a letter last year to the Polish Senate after her country finally honored her efforts, Mrs. Sendler wrote, "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."
In 1965, Mrs. Sendler became one of the first of the so-called righteous gentiles honored by the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. Poland's Communist leaders did not allow her to travel to Israel; she was presented the award in 1983.
Irena Krzyzanowska was born in Otwock, in what is now Poland, on Feb. 15, 1910. Her father was a physician. Her marriage to Mieczyslaw Sendler ended in divorce after World War II. Her second husband, Stefan Zgrzembski, died before her. She is survived by her daughter, Janka, and a granddaughter.
Mrs. Sendler once told Ms. Stahl that she wanted to write a book about the bravery of Jewish mothers.
"She said," Ms. Stahl recalled, " 'Here I am, a stranger, asking them to place their child in my care. They ask if I can guarantee their safety. I have to answer no. Sometimes they would give me their child. Other times they would say come back. I would come back a few days later and the family had already been deported.' "