2006-12-14 / Top Stories

Polish Woman’s Chronicle Of Courage Brought To Local Temple

By Linda Steinmuller

                             Students perform “Life in a Jar”at Temple Sholom last month.                   Linda Steinmuller Students perform “Life in a Jar”at Temple Sholom last month. Linda Steinmuller At a recent performance of “Life in a Jar” at Temple Sholom in Mill Basin, the congregation learned how four students and their teacher are changing the world.

“Life in a Jar” is the story of a Polish social worker, Irena Sendler, who saved the lives of 2,500 Jews during World War II. Her story represents the values of Tikkun Olam (repairing the world) –– a principle that states whoever saves one life, saves the entire world.

Sendler’s efforts — helping children escape from the Warsaw Ghetto and keeping a list of their names in a jar she buried — were relatively unknown until 1999 when Norm Conrad, a Social Studies teacher at a rural Kansas high school, encouraged his students to work on a yearlong National History Day project. He showed them an article from a 1994 issue of U.S. News and World Report about a Christian Polish woman named Irena Sendler who saved 2,500 Jews from certain death in the War-saw Ghetto during World War II. Conrad asked his students to research her story, which heretofore was unfamiliar, and find out where she was buried.

Sendler holds medal she received in 2003 from the Judaica Foundation in recognition of her extraordinary courage and human solidarity by saving 2,500 human lives from the Warsaw Ghetto.Sendler holds medal she received in 2003 from the Judaica Foundation in recognition of her extraordinary courage and human solidarity by saving 2,500 human lives from the Warsaw Ghetto. Uniontown, Kansas has little di-versity and no Jewish students in its small 120-student high school, but four students (Megan Stewart, Liz Cambers, Sabrina Coons and Jessica Shelton) accepted the challenge and began looking for information on Irena Sendler.

They were so moved that they turned her story into a theatrical presentation, “Life in a Jar,” and performed it in several Kansas communities. They subsequently contacted several organizations and finally got Sendler’s address and were surprised to learn that she was still alive. From that point on, the students would have a jar at every performance to collect funds for Sendler and eleven other Polish rescuers.

In May 2001, the four students and Conrad took their first trip to Poland. They spent time with the woman they had come to know through their research and got to meet 20 children she helped rescue from the Ghetto. After that landmark visit, the Kansas students became known as “rescuers” by one of the children — since they “rescued” Irena Sendler’s chronicle of courage.

Conrad with the woman who inspired his students’ project.Conrad with the woman who inspired his students’ project. In 2002, Conrad took his second trip to Poland with new students, who interviewed twenty-four Ghetto survivors and performed “Life in a Jar” for them and others. Afterwards, they went to the house where Sendler had buried the jars under an apple tree, and visited Treblinka, one of several Nazi concentration camps in Poland.

To date, there have been over 200 performances of “Life in a Jar” and a total of four trips to Poland where Sendler, who will be 97 in February, lives in a Catholic home for the elderly.

The Temple Sholom event included a discussion on a short film and a challenge to congregants to repair the world (Tikkun Olam in Hebrew).

Born in 1910 in Otwock, Poland, a small town outside of Warsaw, Irena Sendler was a social worker and a member of the Polish Catholic resistance group, Zegota. When the Ger-mans invaded Poland in 1939, Sendler helped Jews by offering them food and shelter. But a year later, after the creation of the Warsaw Ghetto, an en-closed 16-square block area that contained over 450,000 Jews behind its walls, Sendler could no longer help the isolated Jews.

Sendler used her official papers as a Polish social worker and her guile to gain entrance to the Ghetto. She brought in food, medicine, and clothing, but with dozens dying daily she decided she had to rescue the children. Con-sequently, she convinced parents to let her smuggle their children out of the Ghetto or they would die or be sent to death camps. Sendler used different methods, including hiding children under an ambulance stretcher, escaping through the courthouse, sewer pipes or other underground passages, and sedating the children and putting them in body bags, toolboxes, and coffins.

Those children who spoke perfect Polish and could recite Christian prayers, could be smuggled in through a church next to the Ghetto. Those children were sent to live in orphanages, convents, foster homes and other safe houses.

Sendler kept a record of the children’s names on tissue paper and placed the lists in a jar, which she buried in a neighbor’s garden under an apple tree with the hope of someday digging it up, locating the children and informing them of their true identity.

Arrested in October 1943, Sendler was imprisoned, interrogated, tortured, and beaten. Her legs and feet were broken, but she never revealed the children’s names. She was sentenced to death, but a Polish underground group bribed a German guard and helped her escape. Sendler lived in hiding until the end of the war when she went back for the jars and began the job of finding the children and their parents. Sadly, most of the children’s parents died in Treblinka.

To find out more about the Irena Sendler Project, visit www.irenasend-ler.org.

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