Pole who saved 2,500 in Warsaw also saved their names

Irena Sendler, one of the first to be declared a Righteous Gentile, kept a list of the original names of the children she saved.

Irena Sendler (photo credit: AP [file])
Irena Sendler
(photo credit: AP [file])
The petite woman with the black bonnet sat on a reclining chair in a central Warsaw nursing home. The 94-year-old could not get the image of the skeletally thin children lying in the street of the Warsaw Ghetto, meekly whispering "bread," out of her mind. It was 2004, nearly six decades after World War II, but the horrors of the Holocaust were still alive for Irena Sendler. Sendler, who, with a group of friends, is credited with sneaking 2,500 Jewish children out of the ghetto, died on Monday in a Polish hospital from pneumonia. She was 98. Sendler was one of the first to be awarded Yad Vashem's highest honor - she was declared a Righteous Gentile in 1965 for risking her life to save Jews during the Shoah - but it was only in her golden years that she received recognition from the Polish government, which, together with Holocaust survivor groups, nominated her for the Nobel Prize two years ago, after decades in which Communist governments frowned on her heroic actions. Sendler's story - and her connections with the Jewish community - began on the outskirts of Warsaw, where as a young girl she was taught at home that people are either good or bad, and should not be judged based on race, religion or nationality, she recounted in the 2004 interview with The Jerusalem Post. "Whatever I did had its roots in my family home," Sendler said, as she told her story through an interpreter. When Germany invaded Poland in the fall of 1939, Sendler was just shy of her 30th birthday. "The whole of Poland was drowning in blood, but the Jewish nation was suffering the most, with the Jewish children the most vulnerable," she recalled. Sendler and a group of friends in the Warsaw municipality's social welfare department started producing false documents to provide Jews in the ghetto with monetary assistance that the Germans had cut off. After 1940 the ghetto was closed off to non-Jews, and Sendler and her friends could not get in to distribute the funds. She soon learned that one sanitation company was still allowed into the ghetto. Sendler got the Polish director of the service to employ her and 10 friends so they could continue helping Jews. For the next two years, dressed as nurses, Sendler and her friends carried food, money, and medicine hidden in their dresses to ghetto residents. As conditions deteriorated, and the liquidation of ghetto began, Sendler came to the realization that the only chance for the children to survive was to escape. In 1942, she joined the Polish underground movement, "Zegota," and, with the help of a dozen friends, initiated a large-scale clandestine campaign to save Jewish children. "You know the people, we have the money," the president of the organization told her, she recalled. Acting on information provided by two Jewish policemen in the ghetto, Sendler and her friends went to Jewish homes in areas that were to be liquidated first and offered to save the children. "We would go into the houses slated for deportation, and would tell the family members we can't help everybody, but we will help the children," she said. When asked by the families what guarantee she could give that the children would survive, Sendler could only tell them that she was not even sure that she and the children would get out of the ghetto alive. Sendler and her friends managed to save 2,500 children. The children, who ranged in age from six months to 12 years, were taken from the ghetto in one of four ways: with bags of garbage; through the city court whose usually locked back doors were located on the ghetto's edge; hidden under the benches of the city tram, whose parking lot was just inside the ghetto walls; or through the cellars of houses that were adjacent to the ghetto. To muffle the cries of the children from the Nazi guards as they were taken out with the garbage, the driver of Sendler's cart was always accompanied by a dog. When they approached the Nazis, the driver stepped on the dog to make it bark, drowning out the cries of the children. Once outside, Sendler took the children to trusted Polish families, and later placed them in orphanages and convents. "The children," Sendler recounted, "had to go through three stages of tragedy. First they were taken from their homes, then they were taken from their step-families, and then they were put in convents or orphanages." Sendler kept a listing of the children's original names along with their new Christian names and adopted families hidden in a jug in a friend's garden, knowing that was the only way the children would ever return to their religion and know their past. In October 1943, Sendler was arrested by the Gestapo and tortured. After failing to elicit any information, the Nazis ordered her to be killed by firing squad. But on the day of her execution, Sendler was secretly freed, after her underground companions paid a considerable bribe to one of the Gestapo agents; he listed her as "executed" in the Nazi records. Until the end of the war, she was forced to remain out of sight, but under a false name, continued working for the Zegota. In a meeting with this writer two years ago, the ever-alert Sendler wondered aloud how anti-Semitism could be resurfacing in Europe just six decades after the Holocaust, and asked which prominent Israeli entrepreneurs assisted social services that helped the aging Holocaust survivors, as well as those groups that worked with people who helped saved Jews. Polish President Lech Kaczynski expressed great regret over Sendler's death, calling her "extremely brave" and "an exceptional person." "A great person has died - a person with a great heart, with great organizational talents, a person who always stood on the side of the weak," Warsaw Ghetto uprising leader Marek Edelman told Polish TV. "I get mad when someone calls me a hero," she said at the end of an emotional interview, her face suddenly glowing. "I did a normal thing."