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Aged Holocaust hero faces belated celebrity

The pilgrims are still coming to a fragile 97-year-old woman in black, living in her tiny nursing room filled with flowers and pictures.

The attention tires Irena Sendler sometimes. She never sought credit for smuggling 2,500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto anyway. Not for risking execution to save other people's children, or holding out under torture by the Nazis, or enduring decades as a nonperson under the communist regime that followed.

She once dismissed her wartime deeds as merely "the justification of my existence on this Earth, and not a title to glory."

"I'm very tired - it's too much for me," Sendler said recently of the incessant visits, during a brief meeting with an Associated Press reporter. And giving a little laugh, she added a bit sadly: "I feel my age."

Sendler in recent years has gained a measure of celebrity amid broader interest in Holocaust heroes stoked by the film "Schindler's List." Poland's parliament honored her in a March 14 ceremony and the country is pushing her candidacy - mostly symbolic - for the Nobel Peace Prize.

It is late recognition for an extraordinary life.

Sendler, a social worker, began organizing financial and material help for Jews after the war began in 1939 with the Nazi invasion. Posing as a nurse and wearing a Star of David armband - in solidarity and to blend in - Sendler would enter the Warsaw Ghetto, the hellish, hunger-and-disease-stalked prison enclave the Nazis established as a prelude to deporting and murdering Poland's Jews in death camps.

A Polish doctor forged papers stating she was a nurse. The Nazis, who feared the typhoid fever spreading in the ghetto, were happy to let Polish medical workers handle the sick and the dead.

She persuaded Jewish parents that their children had a better chance to live if she smuggled them out and placed them with Catholic families.

In hopes of reuniting them later with their birth parents, she wrote the children's names and new addresses, in code, on slips of paper and buried them in two jars in an assistant's yard in 9 Lekarska Street. That hope never came true; almost all the parents died in Hitler's camps.

What the jar did save was their true, Jewish names.

Elzbieta Ficowska, nee Koppel, was five months old when one of Sendler's associates gave her a narcotic to make her sleep and put her in a wooden box with air holes. Box and baby left the ghetto with bricks on a horse-drawn wagon in July 1942.

Ficowska's mother hid a silver spoon in the baby's clothes. It was engraved with her nickname, Elzunia, and her birth date: January 5, 1942. Elzbieta was taken in by Sendler's associate Stanislawa Bussoldowa, a widowed Catholic midwife.

To this day, Ficowska calls the late Bussoldowa "my Polish mother" to distinguish her from "my Jewish mother."

For a few months, Elzunia's mother was able to telephone and hear her daughter gurgle. Soon, both parents died in the ghetto.

The escape routes were many and ingenious.

Sometimes, as with Ficowska, Sendler and her team hid the children in boxes or sacks and took them out of the ghetto in a truck. The fearful driver got a German shepherd and made it bark to drown out the children's cries when they passed by Nazi checkpoints.

At other times, the children rode an empty, or almost empty, streetcar linking the ghetto with the outside world, and driven by a cooperating driver.

Sometimes Sendler and her helpers passed them through the secret basements of buildings on the edge of the walled-in ghetto to the city outside, or _ with the help of conspiring janitors - through a court building with doors on the "Aryan" and the ghetto side.

Sendler was arrested in a Gestapo night raid on her apartment on Oct. 20, 1943. The Nazis took her to the dreaded Pawiak prison. Few left Pawiak alive.

She was tortured and says she still has scars on her body - but refused to betray her team.

"I kept silent. I preferred to die than to reveal our activity," she was quoted as saying in the one book about her, "Mother of the Children of the Holocaust: The Story of Irena Sendler" by Anna Mieszkowska.

The Polish resistance bribed a Gestapo officer. He put her name on a list of executed prisoners and let her go. She went into hiding under an assumed name but continued her activity.

Today, Sendler is always dressed in black - in mourning for her own son, Adam, who died of heart failure in 1999. She can no longer walk, and spends much of her time hunched in a chair, next to a window and a table covered with vases with flowers, memorabilia and medicine.

Yet she has retained her pluck and a sense of humor. During a recent visit from Poland's chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, and the U.S. ambassador, Victor Ashe, Sendler joked she felt as if she had already won the Nobel Peace Prize due to all the recognition she has received of late.

"I'm the only person in the world who has two Nobels!" she joked, showing her visitors evidence of two honors that have moved her deeply - a small album filled with pictures of German schools named after her, and bound volumes of signatures of people supporting her Nobel candidacy.

After the war, Sendler raised a family with her second husband, Stefan Zgrzembski, set up orphanages and nursing homes and was an official in the education system. But communist authorities barred her from positions of influence. As a member of the Polish Socialist Party before the war, Sendler was of the wrong shade of red for Poland's postwar Moscow-backed communist rulers.

She blames questioning and harassment by the secret police for the premature birth of her son, Andrzej, who died after two weeks. Her daughter Janina and second son Adam encountered difficulties in pursuing education and in building careers.

She was recognized in 1965 by Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust museum, as a so-called Righteous Among the Nations, but ignored at home.

Jewish history was a taboo in communist-run Poland, making Sendler an uncomfortable witness, says Michal Glowinski, 72, hidden as a boy by Sendler in a convent after his Jewish family escaped the ghetto in January 1943. They were reunited after the war.

"I remember the streets of the ghetto," Glowinski says. "I remember the bodies of people dead of starvation, lying in the streets and covered with paper of light-gray color. I never saw such paper again. I remember the fear."

Glowinski, a literary critic who published his story in the memoir "The Black Seasons," says "I owe my life to Mrs. Sendler."

"She is an absolutely heroic person, exceptional," he said, stressing the "energy and imagination" she needed to save 2,500 children, when trying to save just one Jewish person could mean instant execution.

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