Irena's list: Holocaust heroine's untold story

This week, a 97-year-old Polish woman was finally honoured for saving thousands of Jewish children from extermination in Nazi death camps. Claire Soares tells her extraordinary tale
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The Independent Online

Behind the doors of a Polish nursing home sits a woman who might be described as the female Oskar Schindler. She didn't have his industrial machinery or his financial might, but the one-time health worker rescued twice as many Jews from the horrors of the Holocaust. Nearly 2,500 children were saved from Warsaw's Ghetto and an almost certain death in the concentration camps - all thanks to Irena Sendlerowa.

Ms Sendlerowa, now 97, smuggled Jewish babies and children out in sacks, through sewer pipes and even hidden under stretchers in ambulances. They were then farmed out to non-Jewish foster families where they were given false identities and taught to speak Polish and rattle off Christian prayers so they could fool prying Gestapo officers.

Nominated for this year's Nobel Peace Prize, the frail pensioner shuns the notion that she is a heroine, but the hundreds of Jewish children who got the chance to grow up because of her would disagree.

"I would describe her actions as pure heroism. I know she doesn't like it, and she modestly says that she was just doing what any human being would do, but there's no other word for it," Elzbieta Ficowska, one of the rescued children, said. "The survival instinct is to save ourselves but she saved others." As war swept across Europe, Elzbieta and almost 400,000 other Polish Jews were swept into an area about the size of New York's Central Park. In November 1940, the Warsaw Ghetto was born.

Parents spent the following months watching their children play behind 10ft walls topped with broken glass, as they tried to eke out an existence on strict food rations and protect their families from outbreaks of typhoid and tuberculosis that tore through the overcrowded rooms.

Elzbieta's birth mother used to carry her newborn around in a rucksack to try to hide her from the Nazis. But the Germans soon grew wise to this ruse and one day a soldier prodded the bag with his bayonet. The baby had a lucky escape on that occasion, but the episode persuaded her mother to take drastic action. So when Elzbieta was just five months old, Ms Sendlerowa hid her inside a toolbox, stashed it on a lorry carrying bricks and spirited her away to freedom.

Separating infants from their parents was heart-wrenching, Ms Sendlerowa recalls in an interview posted on the website of the Association of Children of the Holocaust in Poland. "We witnessed infernal scenes. Father agreed but mother didn't. Grandmother cuddled the child most tenderly and, weeping bitterly, said, 'I won't give away my grandchild at any price.' "

And then there were the occasions when the impossible really was impossible. "We sometimes had to leave such unfortunate families without taking their children from them," Ms Sendlerowa said. "I would go there the next day to see what the whole building had come to and often found that everyone had been taken away to the railway siding for transport to the death camps."

The Nazi nightmare was not necessarily over even for those lucky children that were rescued. Although they were supposedly safe, they still had to endure the Gestapo's random searches.

"I know of cases when the sole chance of survival was the external window-sill, behind a curtain, keeping the child there as long as necessary, holding on with numb hands so as not to fall, until the Germans left," Ms Sendlerowa explained.

Sometimes the danger levels became so great that a second foster home had to be found. One sobbing boy once pleaded with Ms Sendlerowa: "Please tell me how many Mums can you have, for this is the third one I'm going to."

The penalty for helping Jews in Nazi-occupied Poland was death, but that did little to deter the health worker, whose job allowed her the all-important permit to enter the ghetto.

A Polish Catholic, Ms Sendlerowa, whose code name was Jolanta, decided to show her solidarity with the Jewish people, wearing the mandatory Star of David armband whenever she entered the ghetto. I was brought up to believe that a person must be rescued when drowning, regardless of religion and nationality. We who were rescuing children are not ... heroes," she said. "Indeed ... the opposite is true - I continue to have qualms of conscience that I did so little."

Even in the turmoil of war, Ms Sendlerowa had the presence of mind to keep meticulous records of those she rescued so that a reunion might be possible later on. By the time the war ended, though, many of the relatives had been slaughtered in the Holocaust - most at the Treblinka death camp, where an estimated 300,000 Jews were murdered in the summer of 1942 alone.

But Ms Sendlerowa refused to give in to despair and carefully copied each child's details on to cigarette papers twice for security. The precious information was then sealed in two glass bottles and buried in a colleague's garden.

Although Ms Sendlerowa was working under the umbrella of Zegota (a secret association backed by the Polish government in exile) and had countless collaborators, she was the only one involved in maintaining and protecting the children's archives. And this carried a big risk.

Disaster almost struck in October 1943 when a squad of Nazi soldiers arrived at dawn, tore the whole house apart and carted Ms Sendlerowa off to Gestapo headquarters. Officers tortured her, trying to prise out information. Her legs and feet were broken but her lips stayed shut.

"I still carry the marks on my body of what those 'German supermen' did to me then," she said. "I was sentenced to death ... but apart from that, there was also the anxiety that the only trace of those children would disappear should I die."

Unbeknown to her, her Zegota colleagues were working behind the scenes and managed to bribe a German officer to arrange her escape in return for a sackful of dollars.

"It is beyond description to tell what you feel when you're travelling to your own execution, only at the last moment to find you have been bought out," she recollected. The following day, the German authorities, still in the dark about her escape, put up posters all over Warsaw announcing that she had died at the hands of the firing squad.

After that, Ms Sendlerowa was condemned to lead a shadowy life, assuming false identities, hidden from official view, unable to return to her home. When her mother died, shortly after the near-miss with the firing squad, Gestapo agents turned up at the funeral, scouring the mourners for the dead woman's daughter.

Ms Sendlerowa was one of the first to be recruited by Zegota, or the Konrad Zegota Committee to give it its full name. The organisation was set up in 1942 - when it became clear that the Germans were bent on exterminating an entire race - to pull together and strengthen the disparate efforts to help the Jews.

Two other Polish women provided the driving force behind the group's creation - Zofia Kossak, a conservative Catholic writer, and Wanda Krahelska-Filipowicz, a Socialist activist. But the pair tapped into already extensive networks, such as Ms Sendlerowa's health and social worker web, which had arisen quite organically in the face of the Nazi's ethnic cleansing.

Konrad Zegota was a purely fictional person, but the surname "came to signify all activities involving help to Jews", according to Irene Tomaszewski and Tecia Werbowski, who wrote a book about the organisation.

Yet many Warsaw residents had never heard of the group until about a decade ago, when a marble plaque was unveiled in its honour near the former ghetto. Poland's post-war communist regime fostered anti-Semitism, and the story of these ordinary but extraordinarily brave people was almost forgotten. This week, official amends were made with the current Polish government formally recognising Ms Sendlerowa, ironically enough by the term she always said "irritates me greatly". Parliament declared her "a national hero" and welcomed her nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Too weak to attend the ceremony, the pensioner did send a letter, modest to the last.

"Every child saved with my help and the help of all the wonderful secret messengers, who today are no longer living, is the justification of my existence on this Earth, and not a title to glory," she wrote. "Over a half-century has passed since the hell of the Holocaust, but its spectre still hangs over the world and doesn't allow us to forget the tragedy."