Working as a Catholic social worker in the underground network Zegota during World War II, Irena Sendler headed an operation to smuggle Jewish children out of the Warsaw ghetto. Over 16 months, her volunteers spirited youngsters out in sacks, suitcases or body bags, through sewers, basements and subterranean passageways. Because Sendler eventually hoped to reunite the children with their parents, she scribbled their names and locations on scraps of paper and buried them in jars in a garden. She did not reveal the names even when she was captured and tortured by the Gestapo, whose beatings broke her legs and feet, and left her permanently disabled.
In all, she helped rescue approximately 2,500 Jews -- more than twice the number saved by Oskar Schindler -- although her equally heroic deeds remained obscure for decades after the war. Sendler remained a historical footnote, in fact, until three teenagers a continent away discovered her story and turned it into a play in 1999.