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At 97, Irena Sebdlerowa today lives peacefully in a Warsaw nursing home, but her past is riddled with action-packed tales of torture, espionage and heroism.
As a young social worker, Sendlerowa, a member of the underground Council of Assistance for Jews, known as Zegota, arranged for 2,500 Jewish children to be smuggled out of the Warsaw Ghetto to escape Nazi deportation into concentration camps.
Irena obtained a pass from the Warsaw Epidemic Control Department so she could enter the ghetto and help the inhabitants. She delivered food, medicines and clothes and even wore a yellow star armband to show her solidarity with the Jews.
Children were taken out of the ghetto in ambulances as victims of typhus and were hidden in workmen’s bags, bins, potato sacks and coffins. They were escorted through underground sewers and tunnels and taken to Polish families and institutions who had agreed to hide them.
She was captured by the Gestapo in 1943 but refused to reveal where the children were being hidden, despite being tortured and threatened with execution. She was released from the infamous Pawiak prison after the Zegota bribed a German guard.
Public records at the time showed that she was executed, but she assumed a new identity to continue her work undercover.
The children were provided with false papers and placed them with Polish families, who told neighbours that the children were relatives. Others were looked after in Catholic convents.
A play, Life in a Jar, has previously been made about her describing how she placed the names of all the children in a jar so their relatives could find them after the war.
When the war was over, Irena dug up the jars which were hidden under an apple tree. She attempted to reunite the children with their relatives, but most had died in the Nazi concentration camps.
She has already received the Order of the White Eagle, the highest Polish civil honour and the Jan Karski Award For Valour and Compassion. She is also named in Yad Vashem’s Righteous Among the Nations and has been suggested as a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Yesterday she received her latest accolade as the Polish Senate passed a unanimous resolution recognising her contribution to rescuing Jews during the Holocaust.
Sendlerowa said in a written address, “Let us build a civilization of good, of life not of death.”Shoah hero honoured by Marc Shoffman