What began as an extracurricular National History Day project at a high school in a rural Kansas city has turned into a national nonprofit organization whose mission is to repair the world by developing unsung hero projects in K-12 schools worldwide using drama, film documentaries and exhibits.
In fall 1999, a teacher in Uniontown, Kansas encouraged three students to work on a yearlong National History Day project. This teacher, Norm Conard, had found a clipping in a 1994 issue of U.S. News and World Report that mentioned a woman named Irena Sendler saving 2,500 children from the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942. Because details of her story weren’t known at that time, he told his students that it might be a typographical error and encouraged his students to see what they could find out about her. From their research, they wrote a play, “Life in a Jar,” which won first place in a school district contest in February 2000 and later in the state’s History Day competition.
Students have now performed the play more than 350 times throughout the U.S. and in Europe, including last week at Chandler Center for the Arts, at a performance sponsored by the East Valley JCC, the Greater Phoenix Film Festival and the City of Chandler. Conard spoke at the Jan. 12 performance and one of the original students, Megan Stewart Felt, now grown and a mother of two, performed the role of Sendler.
Sendler, a Polish-Catholic social worker, had gone into the Warsaw Ghetto to convince Jewish parents and grandparents to let her sneak their children past the Nazi guards to bring them to the homes of Polish families or hide them in convents and orphanages. From 1939 to 1942, Sendler made false documents for people in the Warsaw area, helping save many children, adults and families, and in December 1942, she joined a Polish underground group called Zegota that assisted Jews; she was in charge of the children’s division.
Sendler and her network made lists of the children’s real names and put the lists in jars that she buried in a garden so she could dig them up after the war and tell the children their real identities – in the hope of reuniting them with their family.
On Oct. 20, 1943, Sendler was captured by the Nazis and severely beaten, but the Polish underground bribed a guard to release her, and she went into hiding. After the war, she dug up the bottles and began trying to find children and their parents. Almost all of the parents of the children Sendler saved died at the Treblinka death camp.
Although Sendler received recognition from Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum, in 1965 and a tree was planted there in her honor in 1983, her story was largely unknown.
As part of their research, the Kansas students searched for information about Sendler’s burial place and learned from the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous that she was still alive, at age 90, and living in Warsaw, Poland.
They wrote to her in February 2000 and received a response in April, a letter written in Polish, along with photographs and copies of official documents. Conard found a Polish student at the nearby university to translate and a correspondence began between Sendler and the students.
In January 2001, the students performed at a nearby school where a Jewish educator and businessman who had taken a year’s sabbatical from his company to volunteer as a teacher saw their performance. Afterward he invited the students, along with their teacher and parents, to dinner and asked them where they wanted to go with their project. They told him they wanted to go to Poland to meet Sendler and that they had raised $81 in candy sales toward the effort. He offered to raise money for the trip and two days later, announced that he’d raised the funds to send them to Poland. In May 2001, Conard, four students and several parents visited the country, where they spent time with Sendler and performed “Life in a Jar” for Holocaust survivors and rescuers. The visit made international news.
The following year, the students returned to Poland with additional students to interview Sendler and those connected with her story. They also visited Treblinka and retraced Sendler’s steps in the Warsaw Ghetto, and visited the tree where Sendler had buried the jars.
In 2007, with the assistance of philanthropist and international businessman Lowell Milken of California, Conard and his high school students founded the Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes, an international nonprofit in Fort Scott, Kansas to develop projects that teach respect and understanding. Conard serves as executive director of the center and Felt is the program director.
Through the years, the students appeared on television shows and in newspaper articles to share Sendler’s story. A book, “Life in a Jar: The Irena Sendler Project” by Jack Mayer, was published in 2011 and “The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler,” starring Anna Paquin as Sendler, was made as a TV movie in 2009.
The foundation has a copy of the list of the children’s names from Sendler’s jar and at the Jan. 12 production, Felt told the audience that they still occasionally receive calls from Holocaust survivors who know they were rescued from the Warsaw Ghetto and inquire whether they were on Sendler’s list.
“Life in a Jar: The Irena Sendler Project” is the subject of a session at the Bureau of Jewish Education’s upcoming Educators’ Conference on the Holocaust on Jan. 25 at the Ina Levine Jewish Community Campus in Scottsdale. Roni Zee, the former director of the Greater Phoenix Jewish Film Festival who was instrumental in bringing the performance to Chandler, will lead a session about using media as a vehicle to teach the Holocaust. (Visit bjephoenix.org to learn more about the conference.)
Before her death at 98 on May 12, 2008, Sendler had received several awards. An international Irena Sendler Award was started in 2006, and she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007. In 2013, a walkway between the new Museum of the History of Polish Jews and the Monument to the Warsaw Ghetto Heroes was dedicated to Sendler, with guests including her daughter and the then-president of Poland, Bronislaw Komorowski. Her son, Adam, died on Sept. 23, 1999, the exact day the “Life in a Jar” project began.
This article first appeared in the Phoenix Jewish News.