WARSAW, Poland, JAN. 28, 2004 (Zenit.org).- Irene Sendler was known as the angel of the Warsaw ghetto, and she saved 2,500 Jewish children from Nazi persecution.
She was arrested and tortured, her feet and legs were broken, and she was condemned to death, but she did not betray the children she had rescued.
Her story, as that of so many other Catholics who risked their lives to save Jews, is only now coming to light.
Sendler, 93, a Polish Catholic, was not yet 30 when in 1939 she began to dedicate herself to the protection of Jews.
In 1940 the Nazis decided to close the Warsaw ghetto, exposing 500,000 Jews to the risk of death from hardships and illness. Sendler described how children were malnourished, and how illnesses soon became epidemics.
“It was an inferno,” she recalls. “Grown-ups and little ones died on the streets in their hundreds, under the silent gaze of the whole world.”
Thanks to an old professor of hers, who was head of the Commune’s Health Office, Irene Sendler obtained nurses’ entrance permits for herself and a group of friends. Using funds from the Commune and Jewish humanitarian organizations, Sendler purchased food, essential goods, coal and clothing.
When Operation Reinhard began in 1942 — the deportation to death camps of the Warsaw ghetto Jews — Sendler and other people gathered in the Zegota, or Council for Aid to Jews, which began to take children out clandestinely from the ghetto to entrust them to Christian couples who posed as their parents.
“We looked for the addresses of families with children and went to see them, proposing to take the little ones out of the ghetto, to entrust them to Polish families or to orphanages under false names,” she said.
“But will they be saved?” was the question that Sendler heard from Jews hundreds of times. Sometimes there were disputes between mothers who accepted the idea and fathers who refused.
Nevertheless, the great rescue began. Most of the children were taken in ambulances. They hid at the bottom, covered in bloodstained rags, or were tied inside bags. Others escaped the ghetto in rubbish trucks.
The older ones were brought to the ghetto’s church: Jewish children arrived and then left with Christian parents to whom they were entrusted.
To ensure the Jewish children might someday be reunited with their real parents, Sendler compiled tiny slips of paper, on which every child’s name was registered according to his or her real parents. She hid the slips of paper in a glass jar, which was buried in a friend’s courtyard.
In October 1943 Sendler had already saved 400 children, when she was reported. Someone betrayed her. She was captured and tortured, her arms and legs were broken, but she did not say a word. She was condemned to death. But, before the execution, the Zegota paid a huge sum to a Gestapo official.
Sendler was released, although officially she was considered dead. Before the war ended, she succeeded in saving another 2,000 Jewish children.
In 1965, the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Israel awarded her a medal as one of the Righteous Among the Nations. But the Communist regime was in power in Poland and did not allow her to travel. It was not until 1983 that she succeeded in obtaining permission to go to Jerusalem.
Sendler is one of 19,700 Righteous Among the Nations, who did heroic deeds to save Jews from persecution. Almost all of those so honored are Catholic.