- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 10, 2007

WARSAW

The pilgrims keep coming, seeking out the fragile 97-year-old woman in her tiny nursing-home room filled with pictures and flowers.

The attention tires Irena Sendler sometimes. She never sought credit for smuggling 2,500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto, anyway. Nor for risking execution to save the children, or holding out under torture by the Nazis or enduring decades as a nonperson under the communist regime that followed.

She once dismissed her wartime deeds as merely “the justification of my existence on this earth, and not a title to glory.”

“I’m very tired — it’s too much for me,” Mrs. Sendler said recently of the incessant visits. “I feel my age.”

In recent years, Mrs. Sendler has gained a measure of celebrity amid broader interest in Holocaust heroes stoked by the film “Schindler’s List.” Poland’s parliament honored her in a March 14 ceremony and the country is pushing her candidacy — mostly symbolic — for the Nobel Peace Prize.

It is late recognition for an extraordinary life.

Mrs. Sendler, a social worker, began organizing financial and material help for Jews after the war began in 1939 with the Nazi invasion. Posing as a nurse and wearing a Star of David armband — for solidarity and to blend in — Mrs. Sendler would enter the Warsaw Ghetto, the prison enclave the Nazis established as a prelude to deporting and murdering Poland’s Jews in death camps.

A Polish doctor forged papers stating she was a nurse. The Nazis, who feared the typhoid fever spreading in the ghetto, were happy to let Polish medical workers handle the sick and the dead.

Mrs. Sendler persuaded Jewish parents that their children had better chances of living if she smuggled them out and placed them with Catholic families.

In hopes of reuniting them later with their birth parents, she wrote the children’s names and new addresses, in code, on slips of paper and buried them in two jars in an assistant’s yard. That hope never came true: Almost all the parents died in Adolf Hitler’s camps.

But the jar did save their true, Jewish names.

Elzbieta Ficowska, nee Koppel, was five months old when one of Mrs. Sendler’s associates gave her a narcotic to make her sleep and put her in a wooden box with air holes. Box and baby left the ghetto with bricks on a horse-drawn wagon in July 1942.

Elzbieta’s mother hid a silver spoon in the baby’s clothes. It was engraved with her nickname, Elzunia, and her birth date: Jan. 5, 1942. Elzbieta was taken in by Mrs. Sendler’s associate, Stanislawa Bussoldowa, a widowed Catholic midwife.

To this day, Mrs. Ficowska calls the late Mrs. Bussoldowa “my Polish mother” to distinguish her from “my Jewish mother.”

For a few months, Elzunia’s mother was able to telephone and hear her daughter gurgle. Soon, the parents of the baby died in the ghetto.

The escape routes were many and ingenious.

Sometimes, as with Mrs. Ficowska, Mrs. Sendler and her team hid the children in boxes or sacks and took them out of the ghetto in a truck. The fearful driver got a German shepherd and made it bark to drown out the children’s cries as they passed Nazi checkpoints.

At other times, the children rode an empty, or almost empty, streetcar linking the ghetto to the outside world, driven by a cooperating driver. Sometimes Mrs. Sendler and her helpers passed them through the secret basements of buildings on the edge of the walled-in ghetto to the city outside.

Mrs. Sendler was arrested in a Gestapo night raid on her apartment on Oct. 20, 1943. The Nazis took her to the dreaded Pawiak prison, which few left alive. She was tortured, but she refused to betray her team.

“I kept silent. I preferred to die than to reveal our activity,” she is quoted as saying in a book about her, “Mother of the Children of the Holocaust: The Story of Irena Sendler” by Anna Mieszkowska.

The Polish resistance bribed a Gestapo officer. He put Mrs. Sendler’s name on a list of executed prisoners and let her go. She went into hiding under an assumed name but continued her activity.

Today, Mrs. Sendler is always dressed in black — in mourning for her own son, Adam, who died of heart failure in 1999. She can no longer walk, and spends much of her time hunched in a chair, next to a window and a table covered with vases of flowers, memorabilia and medicine.

Yet she retains her pluck and a sense of humor. During a recent visit by Poland’s chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, and the U.S. ambassador, Victor Ashe, Mrs. Sendler joked that she felt as if she had already won the Nobel Peace Prize due to all the recognition she has received of late.

“I’m the only person in the world who has two Nobels!” she joked, showing her visitors evidence of two honors that moved her deeply — a small album filled with pictures of German schools named after her, and bound volumes of signatures of people supporting her Nobel candidacy.

After the war, Mrs. Sendler raised a family with her second husband, Stefan Zgrzembski, set up orphanages and nursing homes and was an official in the education system. But communist authorities barred her from positions of influence. As a member of the Polish Socialist Party before the war, Mrs. Sendler was the wrong shade of red for Poland’s postwar Moscow-backed communist rulers.

She blames questioning and harassment by the secret police for the premature birth of her son, Andrzej, who died after two weeks. Her daughter Janina and second son, Adam, encountered difficulties in pursuing education and building careers.

She was recognized in 1965 by Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust museum, as “Righteous Among the Nations,” but she was ignored at home.

Jewish history was a taboo in communist Poland, making Mrs. Sendler an uncomfortable witness, said Michal Glowinski, 72, hidden as a boy by Mrs. Sendler in a convent after his Jewish family escaped the ghetto in January 1943. They were reunited after the war.

“I remember the streets of the ghetto,” Mr. Glowinski said. “I remember the bodies of people dead of starvation, lying in the streets and covered with paper of light-gray color. I never saw such paper again. I remember the fear.”

Mr. Glowinski, a literary critic who published his story in the memoir “The Black Seasons,” said “I owe my life to Mrs. Sendler.”

“She is an absolutely heroic person, exceptional,” he said, stressing the “energy and imagination” she exhibited to save 2,500 children when trying to save just one Jewish person could mean instant execution.

c AP writer Vanessa Gera contributed to this report.

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