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Irena Sendler: Heroine of the Holocaust

The nondescript, industrial neighborhood where Irena Sendler spends her days is blocks from the Warsaw Ghetto where she helped rescue 2,500 children from Adolf Hitler's wrath during World War II.

Irena Sendler in a Social Welfare Department vehicle in Warsaw in 1948

Irena Sendler in a Social Welfare Department vehicle in Warsaw in 1948.

Photo By WWD Staff

WARSAW — The nondescript, industrial neighborhood where Irena Sendler spends her days is blocks from the Warsaw Ghetto where she helped rescue 2,500 children from Adolf Hitler's wrath during World War II.

Nightmares about the children she was unable to save, as well as the ones who perished in concentration camps still haunt her, but the 98-year-old former Catholic social worker holds fast to a message of hope.

During an interview in the care center where Sendler resides, her daughter Janina said through an interpreter: "My mother's hope is that such a war and Holocaust will never happen again, and that people will learn to be more tolerant. And they will be willing and ready to help the ones in need. She thinks it is human nature to help the weak ones and she doesn't think about it in terms of courage. For her, it is the normal thing to do. It's obvious that you should help the ones who need help."

That said, Janina Sendler added, "Now, after 65 years, she wonders how she managed to do what she did."

Sendler's profile has risen in recent years largely because of a quartet of high school students from rural Kansas who fulfilled a history class assignment by writing about her heroism in a play, "Life in a Bell Jar." The title references how she jotted down the given Jewish names and new identities of 2,500 children on thin tissue paper, sealed the lists in jars and buried them deep in the soil beneath an apple tree. She was undeterred by three German soldiers who lived next door or by the German barracks across the street. "They were hidden right in front of the Germans," her daughter said.

Today, the first U.S. Irena Sendler award will be presented in Springville, N.Y. The second Polish one will be awarded in Warsaw on April 30. A nominee for last year's Nobel Peace Prize, Sendler's personal story also is the subject of a book, "Mother of the Holocaust Children," published by Muza in Poland and Germany. It will be released in Spain and Israel in the coming months. Talks are also under way for the U.S. and U.K. but nothing has been completed, Janina Sendler said. The movie rights have been optioned to producers Jeff Most and Jeff Rice. Rumblings of Angelina Jolie's interest in the project have not been substantiated. "We have heard some things, but we don't ask details," Sendler's daughter said.
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