“It gives me hope.” The remarkable story of Irena Sendler

Have you ever heard of Irena Sendler?

During the Holocaust, this Catholic social worker saved 2,500 Jewish children from certain death by convincing their parents, who were trapped in the Warsaw ghetto, to let her smuggle their kids to gentile families on the outside.

She risked her life every day for months, sneaking the kids out of the ghetto by, for instance, hiding them in ambulances and trucks. She was finally caught and tortured by the Nazis, escaping the firing squad only because her colleagues on the outside paid an extraordinary bribe to let her flee at the last minute.

Now, here’s the kicker:

If you’ve heard of Sendler, it’s likely because of an extraordinary high school history teacher – Norm Conard – in a small town in southeastern Kansas and three of his students who worked on a project about her for National History Day in 2000.

Sendler’s story, the students’ story, and the link between the two are told in an inspiring book, Life in a Jar, that I read only because my wife’s friend recommended it to her and she passed it on to me.

I’m grateful that she did.

The story begins at Uniontown High School in late 1999 when Liz Cambers, 14, was thumbing through a file of news clips to find an idea for the National History Day project when she noticed a U.S. News and World Report from 1994, “The Other Schindlers,” that summarized Sendler’s story in a few paragraphs. Intrigued, she chose Sendler for the project and found two other students – one 14, one 16 – to help.

For months, they researched Sendler’s story relentlessly, spending hours on the phone and in libraries across Kansas and creating a play that they called “Life in a Jar.” That’s because Sendler, who wanted to make sure the children’s Jewish names were not lost to history, wrote them on slips of paper and, with each rescue, inserted the paper into a jar that she buried near an apple tree.

After a dress rehearsal of the play in the high school gym that brought its audience to its feet, they won first prize at the district competition in Columbus, KS. Then, while revising and rehearsing the play in early 2000 as they prepared for the state competition – which they also won – they learned from the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous in New York that Sendler was alive; she was 90 and lived in Warsaw.

They wrote to her, and she wrote back (in Polish) – beginning her letter with the words, “My dear and beloved girls, very close to my heart.” From her letter, the students learned that the Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem named Sendler a “Righteous Among the Nations” in 1965; a tree was planted in her name in Israel in 1983; and Israel made her an honorary citizen in 1985. None of that brought her much notoriety back home, however. It was the three students – all Protestants, by the way – who would do that.

They didn’t win the National History Day competition in Washington, but by now the play was much bigger than a history project. They performed it for Holocaust survivors at the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous and for synagogues, churches, schools, and civic clubs across the Midwest. Newspapers began to write about the students and their play, and they soon recruited a manager to handle their travels.

As audiences stood to applaud, many of them weeping, Conard would ask audience members what had moved them to such emotion. One said, “Protestant girls from rural Kansas, rescuing the story of a Catholic social worker from Poland who rescued Jewish children from the Nazis. It gives me hope.”

One night, a businessman who saw the play invited the girls to dinner, learned that they were trying to raise money to visit Sendler, and, two days later, called to tell them that he had raised the money for them.

Arriving for what would be the first of several trips to Poland, the girls became celebrities in this foreign land, appearing on CNN and Polish and European TV; sitting for interviews with international and Polish newspapers; visiting Auschwitz, Treblinka, the former ghetto, and other historic sites; and performing the play for Holocaust survivors, rescuers, and others. On this trip and later ones, they had several moving visits with Sendler before she died in 2008 at the age of 98.

What, in the end, had these girls and their inspiring teacher accomplished?

Consider this: When they began their research, they could find just one internet reference to Sendler, from Yad Vashem. Since then, according to the March 2011 edition of the book Life in a Jar:

  • The website www.irenasendler.org has received 25 million hits;
  • Sendler has been honored by numerous major organizations across the world;
  • Poland’s President bestowed the nation’s highest honor, The Order of the White Eagle, on her in 2002;
  • Israel’s Prime Minister and Poland’s President nominated her for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2007;
  • The Hallmark Hall of Fame produced a 2009 film, “The Courageous Heart of Irena Sender,” that was shown across the United States on CBS; and
  • The National Bank of Poland minted a coin in late 2009 with images of Sendler and two other brave women with whom she worked during the Holocaust.

“History is not history,” the chancellor of Purdue University-Calumet, Howard Cohen, said at one showing of the play, “until it is written or told.”

Three high school girls in a remote part of Kansas told history and, in so doing, made history as well.

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