WARSAW - Irena Sendler, a Polish woman credited with saving some 2,500 Jewish children from the Holocaust, is being honored for her "courage and compassion" with an award from the U.S.-based American Center of Polish Culture, the head of a Polish survivors' organization said yesterday.
Sendler, along with with 20 helpers, smuggled the children out of the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942 and 1943, safely placing them with Polish families. Now 93, she already has won a medal from Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem.
She was nominated for the U.S. center's annual Jan Karski award by the Warsaw-based Children of the Holocaust Association.
The association's head, Elzbieta Ficowska, whom Sendler rescued in 1942, said Polish first lady Jolanta Kwasniewska plans to receive the award on Sendler's behalf at a ceremony in Washington October 23.
"This is an exceptional honor and I ask myself: do I merit it?," Sendler wrote in a letter to Ficowska's group. "This award is not only for me but also for the 20 people who, every day and every hour, risked their lives and the lives of their families."
Helping Jews in Nazi-occupied Poland was forbidden, and people who did so risked being summarily shot along with their families.
"It took a true miracle to save a Jewish child," Ficowska told a news conference. "Mrs. Sendler saved not only us, but also our children and grandchildren and the generations to come."
Sendler was head of the children's section in the Polish underground movement Zegota, which worked to rescue Jews. Posing as a nurse, she visited the Warsaw Ghetto and persuaded Jewish parents that their children had a better chance of survival if she smuggled them out.
She wrote the children's names on slips of paper and buried them in jars in a neighbor's yard as a record that could help locate the children's real parents after the war. The Nazis arrested her in 1943, but she refused - despite severe beatings - to reveal the names.
After World War II, Sendler worked as a social welfare clerk and director of vocational schools, continuing to assist some of the children she rescued.
Sendler's daughter, Janina Zgrzembska, said yesterday she remembered that during her childhood the family house "was always full of people asking for help, chiefly looking for their lost relatives."
In 2001, four students in Kansas wrote and performed a short play about Sendler's heroism, and visited Sendler and Ficowska in Warsaw.
The Washington-based American Center of Polish Culture founded the Jan Karski award following the death in 2000 of Karski, a former Polish resistance officer who provided the first witness accounts of the Holocaust to the West during World War II.