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Poland was conquered by the Nazi juggernaut early in the second World War. After only five weeks of fierce fighting, the country capitulated.
The German conquerors herded 450,000 Jewish inhabitants of Warsaw into a 16-block ghetto section of town where they were, in effect, imprisoned, unable to leave.
Polish Christian Irena Sendler worked in the Warsaw Welfare Department, which operated soup kitchens all over the city. The department distributed meals and provided financial assistance to the poor and the elderly. She had a surreptitious side to her activities, as well.
During the first three years of the German occupation, she obtained forged documents and registered many Jews under Christian names so they could obtain the services of the welfare department.
Irena felt compelled to help even more. She enlisted in the Zegota, the Council for Aid to the Jews. The Zegota was an arm of the Polish Underground. She obtained a pass from Warsaw Epidemic Control and began smuggling food and medicine into the ghetto during the course of her job.
In 1942, Irena and other members of her band began smuggling Jewish children out of the ghetto. Her hardest job was to convince parents to allow their children to be taken. All knew that if they stayed, they would eventually die; if not at the hands of the Nazis, then starvation or disease would kill them.
Yet, even with this knowledge, some simply could not part with their precious little ones.
Irena also had to find Polish families to accept the contraband children, for the penalty for harboring a Jew, no matter what age, was death. Many of the children would be hidden in orphanages and convents.
To get the children out of the ghetto, the brave heroine would hide them in anything that was convenient. The smaller children were sedated to keep them from making any sound, for if they were discovered it would mean death for all involved. Some were hidden in bags, others in boxes or even in coffins. Some were taken through sewers or underground tunnels.
Irena kept up her valiant life-saving exploits for two years before the Gestapo caught her Oct. 20, 1943.
The courageous girl was arrested and placed in prison in Warsaw. Her captors tortured her, breaking her feet and legs. Despite the torment, she refused to betray her fellow resistance fighters, nor did she reveal the locations of any of the children she had placed in Christian homes.
Sentenced to death by firing squad, Irena accepted her fate. Having walked on the edge for so long, she was not surprised by her capture. She didn't know it, but the Zegota had bribed one of the German guards, who let her out in the woods on the way to the firing squad.
She was rescued by her fellow partisans and was shocked to see her name on the list of those executed posted all over Warsaw. Irena spent the rest of the war in hiding, but survived to see the Nazis defeated.
At great peril to herself, this wonderful Christian woman was credited with saving the lives of 2,500 Jewish children from the Holocaust. In 2007, she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for what she did in World War II.
She lost to Al Gore, who had a slide show about global warming.