LOS ANGELES – Irena Sendler, a Polish Catholic social worker whose ingenuity and daring saved 2,500 Jewish children from extermination in the Holocaust, a feat that went largely unrecognized for 60 years, died yesterday in Warsaw. She was 98.
She had been hospitalized since last month with pneumonia, according to Pawel Maciag, a spokesman for the Polish embassy in Washington.
Ms. 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. But unlike Schindler, whose story received international attention in the 1993 movie “Schindler’s List,” Ms. Sendler and her heroic actions were almost lost to history until four Kansas schoolgirls wrote a play about her nine years ago.
“One person can make a difference,” Megan Felt, one of the students who wrote the play, said yesterday of Ms. Sendler.
“Irena wasn’t even 5 feet tall, but she walked into the Warsaw ghetto daily and faced certain death if she was caught. Her strength and courage showed us we can stand up for what we believe in, as well,” said Felt, who now helps raise funds for aging Holocaust rescuers.
Ms. Sendler was born Feb. 15, 1910, in Otwock, a small town 15 miles southeast of Warsaw. She was an only child whose parents raised her to care about those in need. “I was taught that if you see a person drowning, you must jump into the water to save them, whether you can swim or not,” she told the British newspaper Express in 2005. She was especially influenced by her father, a doctor who defied anti-Semites by treating sick Jews during outbreaks of typhoid fever. He died of the disease when Ms. Sendler was 9.
She studied at Warsaw University and was a social worker when the German occupation of Poland began in 1939. In 1940, after the Nazis herded Jews into the ghetto and built a wall separating it from the rest of Warsaw, disease, especially typhoid, ran rampant. Social workers were not allowed inside the ghetto, but Ms. Sendler, imagining “the horror of life behind the walls,” obtained fake identification and passed herself off as a sanitary worker, allowed to bring in food, clothes, and medicine.
By 1942, when the deadly intentions of the Nazis became clear, Ms. Sendler joined a Polish underground organization, Zegota, recruited 10 of her closest friends and began rescuing Jewish children.
They smuggled the children out in boxes, suitcases, sacks, and coffins, sedating babies to prevent their cries. Some were spirited away through a network of basements and secret passages.
Decades later, Ms. Sendler was still haunted by the parents’ pleas, particularly those from families who ultimately could not bear to part from their children.
“The one question every parent asked me was, ‘Can you guarantee they will live?’ We had to admit honestly that we could not, as we did not even know if we would succeed in leaving the ghetto that day. The only guarantee was that the children would most likely die if they stayed.”
Most of the children who left with Ms. Sendler’s group were taken into Catholic convents, orphanages, and homes and given non-Jewish aliases. In the hope that she could reunite them with their families later, Ms. Sendler recorded their true names on thin rolls of paper. She preserved the precious scraps in jars and buried them in a friend’s garden.
She was captured by the Nazis in 1943 and tortured but refused to tell her captors who her co-conspirators were or where the bottles were buried.
During one particularly brutal torture session, her captors broke her feet and legs and she passed out. When she awoke, a Gestapo officer told her he had accepted a bribe from her comrades in the resistance to help her escape. With her name on a list of executed prisoners, Ms. Sendler went into hiding but continued her rescue efforts.