WARSAW (Reuters) - Poland’s World War Two resistance heroine Irena Sendler, who saved thousands of Jewish children from the Nazi gas chambers, was buried on Thursday to the accompaniment of Roman Catholic and Jewish prayers.
Sendler, who died on Monday aged 98, was once nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for her wartime achievement of smuggling an estimated 2,500 children out of the Warsaw Ghetto.
Jewish community leaders, Holocaust survivors, government ministers and the Israeli ambassador to Poland joined hundreds of other mourners in bright sunshine at Warsaw’s Powaski cemetery to pay tribute to Sendler’s life and achievements.
“Poland, the Jewish people, the world has lost a person who simply fought her whole life... for what it means to help another person, fought for never being indifferent, for never dividing humanity but bringing it together,” Michael Schudrich, Poland’s chief rabbi, told Reuters at the funeral.
Marian Turski, 82, a concentration camp survivor, said Sendler was a modest woman who always downplayed her own role.
“Nobody knows how many people she really saved... Those survivors (saved by Sendler) are today old people but in the meantime they have given birth to another generation and this generation has given birth to yet another generation. So in fact she has saved very many thousands (more) lives,” he said.
When the Nazis set up a ghetto for Warsaw’s Jewish population of about half a million in 1940, Sendler, who had the right to enter the ghetto as a social worker, started smuggling out children in boxes, suitcases or hidden in trolleys.
She then took them to Polish families outside the Ghetto walls where they lived under new identities. The penalty for helping Jews in Nazi-occupied Poland was death.
During the war, which ended in Europe in 1945, the Nazis killed about 6 million Jews, many of them Poles.
In 1943 Sendler, also a leader of the children section of the underground Zegota organisation that helped Jews during the war, was caught, arrested and tortured by the German Gestapo.
She escaped execution after Zegota managed to bribe some Nazi officials who left her unconscious but alive with broken legs and arms in the woods.
Sendler was honoured with Israel’s Yad Vashem Righteous Among the Nations medal in 1965 and in 2007, she was also nominated for the Nobel Peace Price, but lost to U.S. environment activist, Al Gore.
“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.
Additional reporting by Piotr Pilat; Writing by Gareth Jones; Editing by Matthew Jones