Sendler, saviour of Warsaw Ghetto children, dies

Mon May 12, 2008 5:17pm EDT

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WARSAW, May 12 (Reuters) - Irena Sendler, a Polish woman who saved thousands of Jewish children during World War Two by smuggling them out of the Warsaw Ghetto, died in the Polish capital on Monday after a long illness, local media said.

Israel's Holocaust remembrance authority, Yad Vashem, said in a statement that it mourned her death.

The web portal of Poland's leading daily, Gazeta Wyborcza, said Sendler, 98, died in Plocka Street hospital early on Monday. The hospital declined to comment on the report.

Yad Vashem chairman Avner Shalev said: "Irena Sendler's courageous activities rescuing Jews during the Holocaust serve as a beacon of light to the world, inspiring hope and restoring faith in the innate goodness of mankind."

Using her position as a social worker, Sendler regularly entered the ghetto, smuggling around 2,500 children out in boxes, suitcases or hidden in trolleys.

The children were then placed with Polish families outside the ghetto, created by Nazi Germany in 1940 for the city's half a million strong Jewish population, and given new identities.

But in 1943 Sendler, who led the children' section of the Zegota organisation which helped Jews during the war, was arrested and tortured by the Gestapo.

She only escaped execution when Zegota managed to bribe some Nazi officials, who left her unconscious but alive with broken legs and arms in the woods.

"People who stand up for others, for the weak, are very rare. The world would have been a better place if there were more of them," Marek Edelman, the last surviving commander of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, said on national television.

His sentiments were echoed by former Polish President Lech Walesa as well as religious leaders.

Sendler was honoured with Israeli Yad Vashem Righteous Among the Nations medal in 1965 for her actions, and later made an honorary Israeli citizen.

She was also nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize last year but, despite her bravery, she denied she was a hero.

"The term 'hero' irritates me greatly. The opposite is true. I continue to have pangs of conscience that I did so little," Sendler said in one of her last interviews. (Writing by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Jon Boyle)