Irena Sendler (in Poland: Sendlerowa), a Polish Catholic who, under cover of her position as a municipal social worker during the German occupation, smuggled hundreds of children out of the Warsaw ghetto - in everything from potato sacks to coffins, and sometimes thanks to underground corridors and bribes - has died at the age of 98. As director of the Children's Aid Section of "Zegota", the underground Council for Aid to Jews, she organized the safekeeping of almost 2,500 Jewish children in Catholic families, convents, and orphanages during the Holocaust. She always rejected the label of hero, insisting that she only did what had to be done, and that she did it in collaboration with dozens of women co-workers and a wide network of courageous Poles. When arrested she never revealed their names despite severe torture by the Gestapo.
In 1965 Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Institute recognized Irena Sendler as a Righteous Among the Nations, one of the first to be thus honored. She was only given the honor personally in 1983, after Poland's Communist authorities finally agreed to allow her to travel abroad. In 1991 she was named an honorary citizen of Israel. In 2003 she was awarded Poland's highest medal, the Order of the White Eagle. On March 14, 2007, the Senate of Poland unanimously passed a resolution honoring the World War Two activities of Irena Sendler and Zegota, and that year she was a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize ultimately given to Al Gore.
She was born Irena Krzyzanowska in Warsaw on February 15, 1910, to a Catholic family, her father was a doctor who ran a suburban hospital, and many of whose patients were impoverished Jews. "I was taught that if you see a person drowning," she once said, "you must jump into the water to save him, whether you can swim or not."
As a municipal social worker with official access to the Warsaw Ghetto, the young Sendler was a leader among like-minded women who used a whole repertoire of ploys to bring, when emotionally wrenching parental consent was granted, otherwise doomed children to hiding places on the Aryan side. By the time of full-scale deportations to extermination camps, Zegota was established with financial assistance from the Polish Government-in-Exile as the only such underground organization in Nazi-occupied Europe, and Sendler was asked to direct the Children's Aid Section, and kept careful records in the hope of eventually reuniting the children with their parents. Though that rarely happened, there are survivors throughout Poland and the world who regard Irena Sendler as a kind of surrogate mother.
After the war Irena Sendler continued in her profession as a social worker and also became a director of vocational schools. During the Communist era, honest discussion of Polish-Jewish relations was "off limits", and Ms. Sendler lived for many years in quiet obscurity. In her latter years she was cared for in a Warsaw nursing home by Elzbieta Ficowska, head of the Warsaw branch of the Children of the Holocaust Association, who - in July 1942, at six months old - had been smuggled out of the ghetto by Irena in a carpenter's toolbox.
In 2000 some Kansas schoolgirls wrote a play about Sendler called Life in a Jar, referring to a story of how the names of the rescued were hidden. When their teacher brought the girls to Warsaw to perform for Sendler, she began to re-emerge from obscurity. There is a biography by Anna Mieszkowska called Mother of the Children of the Holocaust: The Story of Irena Sendler. There has been talk of a film, with Angelina Jolie in the starring role. A major documentary called In the Name of Their Mothers is nearing completion.
But Sendler has said: "We who were rescuing children are not some kind of heroes. That term irritates me greatly. The opposite is true - I continue to have qualms of conscience that I did so little. I could have done more. This regret will follow me to my death."
At the news of Sendler's death, Marek Edelman, the last surviving leader of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto uprising, said on television, "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."
Her marriage to Mieczyslaw Sendler ended in divorce after the war. Her second husband, Stefan Zgrzembski, predeceased her, as did their two sons, but she is survived by their daughter, Janka, and a granddaughter.