The 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was commemorated this year with ceremonies and speeches but some of the most meaningful commemorations sometimes take place in a more informal environment.
Such is the story of Irena Sendler which was brought to the attention of Jewish organizations and leaders by a group of non-Jewish Kansas students. In 1999 these girls began a research project dealing with the Holocaust. During their research they heard a rumor about a “female Oskar Schindler” and decided to investigate. Their investigation turned into an incredible account of a Polish woman who managed to save over 3000 Jewish lives during the Nazi occupation of Poland.
Irena Sendler was a young Polish social worker when the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939. She immediately joined the Zagota, the Polish underground which was dedicated to helping Jews escape the Nazis and, as part of that group, assisted over 500 Jews to escape from the Germans.
In 1941 Sendler moved to Warsaw where she obtained false papers that identified her as a nurse. With these papers she was able to move freely into the Warsaw ghetto to bring food and medicine to the Jews who were interned within the ghetto walls.
Sendler quickly ascertained the true intentions of the Germans and began a program of smuggling Jewish children out of the ghetto. Many of the children that she brought out of the ghetto were orphans, with no identifiable family, but others were children of parents who were still alive and had to be convinced to allow their children to be removed from their care. Sendler described her activities as “talking the mothers out of their children” and, all in all, she is credited with removing over 2500 children from the Warsaw ghetto.
Together with her Zagota comrades Sendler brought the children out by sewer pipes that ran under the city and through the old courthouse that sat on the edge of the ghetto’s border. In addition she sedated many young children and carried them out in luggage, bags and toolboxes or hid them under her legs as she traveled out of the ghetto by tram.
The children were hidden by sympathetic Polish families and in orphanages and convents. Sendler carefully recorded all of the children’s names on pieces of tissue paper along with the names of the families or institutions where she placed them for hiding. She hid these pieces of paper in jars which she buried in her garden, hoping that the children could some day be reunited with their families or, if not, with their Jewish community.
In 1943 Sendler was arrested by the Gestapo and imprisoned. The Gestapo tortured her, breaking both of her feet, but Sendler never revealed the hiding places of any of “her” children. Her friends from the Zagota were able to bribe a German guard and secure her release and Sendler spent the rest of the war years in hiding.
In 1999 students at a Kansas City High School learned of Sendler’s exploits and, after careful research, publicized her story in a unique project — Life in a Jar. The students met with Sendler, who was, by this time, in her ’90s, and created a presentation that depicts Sendler’s actions during the dark days of Nazi rule. The play has been performed dozens of times over the past decade for audiences around the world. Later funded by a Jewish businessman, the project expanded to include a book and a website.