Polish Catholic Irena Sendler (1910-2008) saved the lives of 2,500 Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II.
Working in the Zegota ("Council for Aid to Jews ") underground movement, where she ran the Children's Division, Irena contrived ways to enter into the Ghetto (often as part of the official Contagious Disease Department) and, with the consent of their parents, smuggle out Jewish children through various means, from hiding them in suitcases and body bags to sneaking them out, as was the case of five-month old infant, Elzbieta Ficowska, inside a carpenter's box. An ambulance driver who smuggled infants under stretchers in the back of his van kept his dog on the seat beside him, having trained the animal to bark to mask any cries from his hidden passengers.
Once outside, Irena created new identities through false documents and worked to find families willing to accept the children and pass them off as Catholic, or managed to hide them in convents and orphanages. Zegota made it clear to all of those hiding children, when the war was over, they must be returned to Jewish relatives.
She kept meticulous records of the real names of all the children she saved, having the courage to believe that her country would one day be freed and that the children could then be reunited with their parents. She hid the lists in glass jars that she buried in the garden rather than keep them around the house, and risk them being discovered.
Her rescue operation came to an end in 1943 when she was captured by the Germans. She was brutally tortured in prison, as the Nazis attempted in vain to learn more about her underground activities. These beatings resulted in both her legs and feet being fractured, causing injuries that plagued her to the end of her days, yet she did not reveal the whereabouts of her list.
She was rescued from the hands of her torturers by the Polish underground, and even though she herself spent the remainder of the war years in hiding, she continued to find ways to be of service to the hidden children. After the war, she dug up her lists from their hiding place, and devoted much time trying to reconnect the rescued Jewish children with their families.
Sadly, most of the relatives had been killed at the Treblinka death camp.
The communist regime that occupied Poland following World War II branded Irena a "fascist" , for her group's anti-communist views, and kept her from receiving just reward for her valiant wartime activities. Her story was rescued from the fog of history by four American high school students from Kansas, who created a play called "Life In A Jar", based on their research into Irena's righteous acts during the war.
As the play's popularity helped her brave efforts to become more internionally known, Irena Sendler put her inspiring courage into humble perspective:
“We who were rescuing children are not some kind of heroes. Indeed, that term irritates me greatly. The opposite is true—I continue to have qualms of conscience that I did so little.”
Last year Irena Sendler was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, but lost...
to Al Gore.