- 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.”

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