WARSAW — Irena Sendler, a Polish Catholic social worker credited with saving some 2,500 Jewish children from the Nazi Holocaust by smuggling them out of the Warsaw Ghetto, died Monday (May 12, 2008), her family said. She was 98.
Mrs. Sendler has been called the female Oskar Schindler, but she saved twice as many lives as the German industrialist who sheltered 1,200 of his Jewish workers. She died at a Warsaw hospital, daughter Janina Zgrzembska said.
President Lech Kaczynski expressed "great regret" over Mrs. Sendler's death, calling her "extremely brave" and "an exceptional person."
Mrs. Sendler was a 29-year-old social worker with the city's welfare department when Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, launching World War II. Warsaw's Jews were forced into a walled-off ghetto.
Seeking to save the ghetto's children, Mrs. Sendler masterminded risky rescue operations. Under the pretext of inspecting sanitary conditions during a typhoid outbreak, she and her assistants ventured inside the ghetto and smuggled out babies and small children in ambulances and in trams, sometimes wrapped up as packages.
Records show that Mrs. Sendler's team of about 20 people saved nearly 2,500 children from the Warsaw Ghetto between October 1940 and its final liquidation in April 1943, when the Nazis burned the ghetto, shooting the residents or sending them to death camps.
"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," Mrs. Sendler said in 2007 in a letter to Polish lawmakers who honored her efforts.
In hopes of one day reuniting the children with their families — most of whom perished in Nazi death camps — Mrs. Sendler wrote the children's names on slips of paper. When German police came to arrest her in 1943, an assistant hid the slips, which Mrs. Sendler later buried in an associate's yard. Some 2,500 names were recorded.
Anyone caught helping Jews in Nazi-occupied Poland risked being summarily shot. The Nazis took her to Pawiak prison and tortured her, leaving her with scars, but she refused to betray her team.
Zegota, an underground organization helping Jews, paid a bribe to guards to free her. Under a different name, she continued her work.