Students from rural Kansas discover a Polish Catholic woman who saved Jewish children. Few had heard of Irena Sendlerowa in 1999. Now after 305 presentations of Life in a Jar, a web site with huge usage and world-wide media attention, a motion picture and award winning book (Life in a Jar/the Irena Sendler Project) Irena is known to the world. How did this beautiful story develop? Read below for the answers.
In the fall of 1999,
a rural Kansas teacher encouraged three students to work on a year-long
National History Day project which would, among other things,
extend the boundaries of the classroom to families in the community,
contribute to history learning, teach respect and tolerance,
and meet our classroom motto, “He who changes one person,
changes the world entire.”
ninth graders, Megan Stewart, Elizabeth Cambers,and
an eleventh grader, Sabrina Coons, accepted the challenge
and decided to enter their project in the National History Day
program (Eventually a number of other male and female students were added to the project). The teacher showed them a short clipping from a March
1994 issue of News and World Report, which said, "Irena Sendler
saved many children and adults from the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942." Her network saved from the Ghetto, plus providing hiding locations for over 2,000 children. The teacher, Mr. Conard,
told the girls the article might be a typographical error, since
he had not heard of this woman or story. The students began
their research and looked for primary and secondary sources
throughout the year.
IRENA'S LIFE (SEE MUCH MORE ABOUT IRENA ON THE SENDLER FAMILY PAGE AND THE ADDITIONAL INFORMATION PAGE, plus we have Irena facts at the bottom of this page)
They found that Irena
Sendler, as a non-Jewish social worker, had gone into the Warsaw
Ghetto with her network,and talked Jewish parents and grandparents out of their
children, rightly saying that all were going to die in the Ghetto
or in death camps, taking the children past the Nazi guards
or using one of the many
means of escape from the Ghetto-the old courthouse for example-
and then adopting them into the homes of Polish families or
hiding them in convents and orphanages. She and her network made lists of the
children's real names and put the lists in jars, then buried
the jars in a garden, so that someday she could dig up the jars
and find the children to tell them of their real identity. The
Nazis captured her and she was beaten severely, but the Polish
underground bribed a guard at Pawiak Prison to release her, and she entered into
Irena had made false documents for people
in the Warsaw area from 1939 to 1942, helping save many, BEFORE
she joined the underground Zegota and started saving children.
In fact, Irena's life has been one of standing up for others.
Her father was an inspiration for serving the world. Irena wants
us to mention that ten others were under her guidance in saving
children from the Ghetto, and a number of others were helping
outside the Ghetto.
FROM KANSAS TO THE WORLD
The students wrote a performance (Life in a Jar) in
which they portrayed the life of Irena Sendler. They have performed
this program for numerous clubs and civic groups in the community,
around the state of Kansas, all over North America and in Europe
(305 presentations as of November 2008). Their small community
had little diversity and no Jewish students in the school district.
The community was inspired by the project and sponsored an Irena
Sendler Day. The students began to search for the final resting
place of Irena and discovered she was still alive and living
in Warsaw, Poland. Irena's story was unknown world-wide, even though she had received esteemed recognition from Yad Vashem in 1965 and support from the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous in New York City. Forty-five years of communism had buried her story, even in her own country.
that time on they would take a jar to every performance and
collect funds for Irena and other Polish rescuers. (They call
their performance Life in a Jar.) The significance
of this project really started to grow with many numerous contacts.
These contacts assisted the students in sending the funds to Poland
for the care of Irena and of other rescuers. They wrote
Irena and she wrote dozens of deeply meaningful
letters to them, with such comments as, "my emotion is being shadowed by the fact that my co-workers have all passed on, and these honors fall to me. I can't find words to thank you, for my own country and the world to know of the bravery of rescuers. Before the day you had written Life in a Jar, the world did not know our story; your performance
and work is continuing the effort I started over fifty years
ago. You are my dearly beloved ones."
discovered a Polish student who began to translate for them. They made a collection
of the letters and have shared these documents with universities,
historical societies, and the Chicago and New York City Jewish
Foundations for the Righteous. Their cause for Irena Sendler
became a national cause; they had rediscovered this courageous
woman. The students appeared on C-SPAN, National Public Radio,
CBS, CNN, the Today Show, in numerous newspaper articles, including the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times and New York Times, and magazine articles,
such as Ladies Home Journal and Guidepost. They were invited to perform
in Washington, D.C. and before a Jewish foundation in New York
City. They have become knowledgeable on subjects such as the
Holocaust, World War II, and the Polish Underground. At least
twenty colleges and universities have been using their letters from Irena and their
project information in their curriculum.
emotion pours out of the audience during their presentation.
They have literally taken our class motto and brought it to
life. They regularly write on their homework papers such notes
as, "I'm changing the world" and "Irena's story
must be told." Several of the students experienced great
emotional situations in life, as had later members of the project.
Megan's (Megan portrays Irena) mother was forty and was seriously ill with cancer; she passed away in June of 2006. Sabrina's mother also passed on during the years of the project.
The four original students continued to dream of visiting Warsaw, interviewing
Irena, surviving children, and others connected to this story.
In January of 2001, they performed
before a large school district in a city about 100 miles from
our school. A Jewish educator and businessman saw the performance
and asked to have lunch with us that day. He told them
he would raise the money and send them to Warsaw, if they would
go that spring (Irena was 91 and in poor health) and bring back
her story. The man raised the money in twenty-four hours.
On May 22, 2001,
Mr. Conard traveled with four students, several parents (Bill
and Phyllis Cambers, Debra Stewart and a local patron), plus
his wife Karen, to Warsaw, Poland. They spent time with Irena
Sendler and then extended the boundaries of the classroom to
the world. The Polish organization for the Children of the Holocaust
arranged a meeting between the rescuers and the children saved;
this was the first such meeting in many years. They also met
a famous Polish poet who was saved by Irena, and an author of
a well-known memoir of the Holocaust who called the students
rescuers of the rescuer; The Polish press made this story
international news. Irena's story was finally reaching others.
The students were called "rescuer's, rescuers of Irena's
story" by one of the children Irena saved.
group met Elzbieta Ficowska and heard her beautiful story of
being rescued by Irena at the age of 5 months, carried out in
a carpenter's box. A great circle of Polish friends have aided
the project in many ways.
2002, the founders of the project and new students traveled to
Poland. They interviewed people connected
to Irena and her story, plus visited with Irena on several occasions.
They also visited Treblinka and retraced Irena's steps in the
Warsaw Ghetto. The story of Irena Sendler continues to expand,
continues to inspire.
this project the students (twelve are now working on the project-see
the Sendler family page--including Travis Stewart, and Jaime Walker, who is now portraying Mrs. Rosner)
are extending the classroom into the world community in many
ways, such as publishing the interviews, performing before
larger audiences, sharing letters of Irena with students and
educators, (copies have been requested and sent to over 250
schools) and interviewing with local and national press. The students
have been contacted by many across the country about a possible
book or screenplay. This project has created ongoing interactive
communication with families in our community and communities
across the country. This web site can reach the students. The original students are now in their mid-twenties and the the four original founders are married, two with children. They continue to present Life in a Jar. All of the present students are in college or have graduated.
parents and community members are involved in the project. A lady in the community
has organized an Irena Sendler Day, and another has organized
an Irena Sendler week. The students continue to perform in front
of local churches, civic groups and clubs. Life in a Jar has
been presented in a number of states and on two summer tours.
In November of 2004 and February of 2007, the Milken Family Foundation sponsored
Life in a Jar in a series of presentations in Los Angeles. Plus the MFF produced a DVD of the play-see the "Order DVD'" link at the top of the web site. The DVD has been placed in over 1,000 schools in the U.S. and around the world. Also, a teacher's/classroom study guide has been produced to accompany the DVD.
Jewish community in Kansas City has reached out in a powerful
way to involve itself with the project. The community as a whole
has adopted the project and this courageous woman as a part
of the family. We list the Jacobsons, Krigels and Isenbergs as families who have assisted in so many ways. Howard and Ro Jacobson established a scholarship fund for Uniontown students who needed help with college.
story of Irena Sendler is spreading and spreading. Over 1,500 media outlets have presented articles about the Kansas kids and the Polish heroine. As a child survivor, Renata Zajdman, a close friend of the project, says, "The young men and women of Kansas put Irena's story on the map."
In 2005, the group again traveled to Poland for presentations of Life in a Jar. You may view the "news section" of this web site for information on that trip. An international Irena Sendler Award was started in 2006. Irena was also nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007. Schools have been named after her and a book in Polish and German has been printed.
In 2009 the Hallmark Hall of Fame produced The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler for CBS. The world premiere was held in Fort Scott, Kansas, with many of the students from the cast and project present. Also present was Renata Zajdman (saved by Irena's network at age 14), actors and directors of the movie, the Hall family from Hallmark, and many others who have supported the story.
Irena passed away on May 12, 2008. She was buried in a Warsaw, Poland cemetery. Her family and many of
the rescued children continue to tell her story of courage and
valor. The Life in a Jar students continue to share her legacy through the play, this web site, through schools and study guides, and world media.