Polish Holocaust Savior Featured In Courier Dies
By Neil S. Friedman
A 98-year-old woman, who has been called one of the great heroines of World War II for smuggling thousands of Jewish children to safety, died this week in her native Poland. Included in the various tributes Irena Sendler received in her lifetime was a 2003 letter from Pope John Paul II that recognized her courageous exploits. Years earlier, the nation of Israel named her an "honorary citizen," an exclusive privilege bestowed on non-Jews for their valiant efforts to save Jews during the Holocaust.
Some local residents - especially readers of this newspaper - may recall Irena Sendler was the subject of a feature story written by Linda Steinmuller eighteen months ago when a Mill Basin synagogue paid tribute to the Catholic woman in a stirring presentation of "Life in a Jar."
Many people know of Oskar Schindler thanks to the acclaimed Academy Award®-winning film, "Schindler's List," about the man who was responsible for saving hundreds of Jews from Nazi death Camps during World War II. But far fewer know about Irena Sendler, who some call the Polish Angel for helping thousands of Jewish children escape the concentration camps in her country.
In November 2006 Temple Sholom presented a performance of "Life in a Jar," a short play about the Polish social worker created by a Kansas high school teacher and a handful of his students who brought her story to life about eight years ago after learning about her during a school project.
The title of the theatrical presentation refers to a jar in which Sendler kept a list of the names of the children that she and her team rescued from Nazi captivity. According to accounts, Sendler, then 29, and her rescue group, Zegota, which worked outside of the Warsaw Ghetto where Polish Jews were confined from 1940-1943.
Sendler and her group masterminded dangerous, clandestine rescue operations, as German soldiers controlled the capitol Polish city, under the guise of preventing a typhoid outbreak and examining sanitary conditions in the walled-off compound. In addition to sneaking in food, medicine and clothing, the group of about 20 Catholic Poles smuggled infants and children out of the Ghetto by any means available, including ambulances, trams, underground passages, vegetable sacks and coffins.
In 1943, Sendler was arrested and tortured by the Gestapo. During the interrogations, her legs were broken, before she was sentenced to death. She survived when her group bribed a German guard to abet her escape. She hid for the remainder of the war and eventually returned to retrieve the jars of names and reunite the children with their parents. She gradually discovered that most of them died at Treblinka, a death camp not far from Warsaw.
A former commander of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in 1943, Marik Edelman said Sendler, "…was very rare."
Polish President Lech Kaczynski called Sendler "an exceptional person" and expressed "great regret" over her death.
The following is an edited excerpt from Steinmuller's article from December 14, 2006. (To see the full text and photos go to canarsiecourier.com and search the archives for the date.)
Sendler's efforts were relatively unknown until 1999 when Norman Conrad, a Social Studies teacher at a rural Kansas high school encouraged his students to work on a history project. He directed them to a story about her he had read in a 1994 issue in U.S. News & World Report and suggested they find out when she died.
Four students accepted the challenge and began looking for information on Sendler. They were so moved, they turned her story into a theatrical presentation and were subsequently surprised to find out she was still alive.
In 2001, the students and Conrad went to Poland to meet Sendler, who was living in a home for the elderly, and some of the children she saved from death. After the landmark visit, the Kansas students became known as "rescuers" by their peers because they "rescued" Irena Sendler's chronicle of courage.
To date, there have been over 200 performances of "Life in a Jar" and the students made three more trips to visit Sendler through 2006.