The MasterBlog: Irena Sendler, a Polish woman who helped smuggle more than 2,500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto, died aged 98 after a long illness
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Irena Sendler, a Polish woman who helped smuggle more than 2,500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto, died aged 98 after a long illness

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Social worker who rescued Jewish children

By Jan Cienski in Warsaw

Published: May 12 2008 22:04 | Last updated: May 12 2008 22:04

Irena Sendler, a Polish woman who helped smuggle more than 2,500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto, occasionally hiding them in sacks so that they would not be found and killed by German guards, has died aged 98 after a long illness.

As a social worker, Sendler had access to the Ghetto, ostensibly to help fight the spread of typhus. In reality, together with about two-dozen co-conspirators from the Zegota Polish underground organisation that tried to help the Jews, she tried to rescue Jewish children from certain death either in the Ghetto or in the concentration camps.

"Irena Sendler's courageous activities rescuing Jews during the Holocaust serve as a beacon of light to the world, inspiring hope and restoring faith in the innate goodness of mankind," said Avner Stanley, chairman of Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust memorial, in a statement.

Sendler, who wore a Star of David armband in the Ghetto so as not to arouse suspicion, took some of the children out by truck, anaesthetised and carried in sacks with the pretence they were dead; others crawled out through sewers.

"The child had to be very well hidden in the car, sometimes in a large box for cleaning supplies and sometimes, unfortunately, in a sack," she wrote in 2000 to US students presenting a play about her called Life in a Jar. "The unfortunate child, sometimes taken by force from its parents or grandparents, was so terrified that it cried loudly."

Once out, Sendler placed the children with Christian families, orphanages or convents around Poland. In Poland during the war, the penalty for anyone hiding a Jew was death. She buried a jar for every child saved with its new and original identity. After the war, the children were returned to Jewish relatives, if any survived the Holocaust.

She was arrested by the Germans in 1943, tortured and sentenced to death, but was rescued after Zegota bribed her executioner not to kill her. The German authorities never found out and put posters up around the Polish capital announcing her death.

Sendler was recognised by Yad Vashem in 1965 and was later granted honorary Israeli citizenship. She was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize last year, and was also honoured by the Polish parliament.

"The achievements of Irena Sendler were much greater than those of ordinary people," said Marek Edelman, one of the few remaining veterans of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, on Polish radio. The 65th anniversary of the uprising was celebrated last month, but Ms Sendler was too ill to attend.

In all, more than 400,000 inhabitants of the Warsaw Ghetto died during the second world war, as did about 3m of Poland's Jewish population.

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