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Life in a Jar. The story of Irena Sendler.
Teen Voice

Righteous Polish Heroine
Discovered by Kansas schoolchildren. Passed away at age 98

In the fall of 1999, history teacher Norman Conard encouraged four students to work on a year long National History Day project which would extend the boundaries of the classroom to families in the community, contribute to history learning, teach respect and tolerance, and meet our classroom motto, “He who changes one person, changes the world entire”.

Norm Conard taught social studies at Uniontown High School in Uniontown for 20 years. A third generation educator, Mr. Conard made sure that his teaching style exceeded traditional classroom boundaries by encouraging his students to develop projects of tolerance and diversity. His dream and the dream of his students was to develop a foundation which can assist schools and students across the country in projects like the Irina Sendler Project. One of his great sources of pride is having seen over 60 of his students achieve national recognition in the National History Day Competition. Selected 1992 Kansas Teacher of the Year by the Kansas State Board of Education, Mr. Conard was also named National Social Studies Teacher of the Year in 1994, Milken National Educator in 1992, USAToday All-American Teacher First Team in 2001, National Board Certification in 2002, and received the NEA National Civil Rights Award in 2004 and the Governor's Award for Education in Kansas during 2004. He was inducted into the National Teachers Hall of Fame in 2007. Mr. Conard says, "Irena Sendler has changed my life and the lives of my students. She continues to make a huge difference in our world."

Three ninth grade girls, Megan Stewart, Elizabeth Cambers, and Jessica Shelton, and an eleventh grade girl, Sabrina Coons, accepted the challenge and decided to enter their project in the National History Day program. Mr. Conard showed them a short clipping from a March 1994 issue of News and World Report, which said, 'Irena Sendler saved 2,500 children from the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942-43'. He told the girls the article might be a typographical error, since he had not heard of this woman or story. The students began their research and looked for primary and secondary sources throughout the year.

They found that Irena Sendler, as a non-Jewish social worker, had gone into the Warsaw Ghetto, talked Jewish parents and grandparents out of their children, rightly saying that all were going to die in the Ghetto or in death camps, taking the children past the Nazi guards (in body bags, saying they were ill, or using one of the many means of escape from the Ghetto-the old courthouse for example), and then adopting them into the homes of Polish families or hiding them in convents and orphanages. She made lists of the children's real names and put the lists in jars, then buried the jars in a garden, so that someday she could dig up the jars and find the children to tell them of their real identify.

The nazis captured her and she was beaten severely, but the Polish underground bribed a guard to release her, and she entered into hiding. The students wrote a play Life in a Jar in which they portrayed the life of Irena Sendler. They have performed this program for numerous clubs and civic groups in the community. They have traveled around the state of Kansas, all over the U.S., and in Europe (225 presentations as of November 2007). The community of Uniontown has little diversity and no Jewish students in the school district. The community was inspired by the Project and sponsored an Irena Sendler Day. The students began to search for the final resting place of Irena and discovered she was still alive and living in Warsaw, Poland. Irena's story was unknown world-wide, even though she has received esteemed recognition from Yad Vashem in the 1960s, as well as support from the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous in New York City. Forty-five years of communism had buried her story, even in her own country.

From that time on the students would take a jar to every performance and collect fund for Irena and other Polish rescuers. (This led to the naming of the performance, Life in a Jar.) The significance of this project really started to grow with numerous unexpected contacts. These contacts assisted the girls in sending the funds to Poland for the care of Irena and of other rescuers. The girls wrote Irena and she wrote and continued to write deeply meaningful letters to them. Her letters often showed how deeply moved she was by this newfound support and recognition. "My emotion is being shadowed by the fact that my co-workers have all passed on, and these honors fall to me. I can't find words to thank you, for my own country and the world to know of the bravery of rescuers. Before the day you had written Life in a Jar, the world did not know our story. Your performance and work is continuing the effort I started over fifty years ago. You are my dearly beloved girls."

They discovered a Polish student, Anna Karasinska, at a local college and she began to translate the letters. They made a collection of the letters and have shared these documents with universities, historical societies, and the Chicago and New York City Jewish Foundations for the Righteous. Their cause for Irena Sendler became a national cause; they had rediscovered this courageous woman. The girls appeared on C-SPAN, National Public Radio, CBS, CNN and in numerous newspaper articles, and magazine articles, such Ladies Home Journal. They were invited to perform in Washington, D.C. and before a Jewish foundation in New York City. They have become knowledgeable on subjects such as the Holocaust, World War II, and the Polish Underground. At least five colleges have been using their letters from Irena and their project information in their curriculum.

The student presentation is heartfelt, and often provokes deep emotions in their audiences. The students, Conard exclaims, “have literally taken our class motto and brought it to life.” They continue to be involved now, even as adults. While middle school students, they regularly wrote on their homework papers such notes as, "I'm changing the world" and "Irena's story must be told". This was not your typical middle school project by any means, and these were not typical blasé’ preadolescents.

The three girls had all experienced great emotional situations in life, as had later members of the project. Megan's mother who was forty and was seriously ill with cancer when the project began, passed away in June of this year. (Megan portrays Irena in the presentation.) Sabrina's mother also passed on during the years of the project.

The four students continued to dream of visiting Warsaw, interviewing Irena, surviving children, and others connected to this story. In January of 2001 they performed (and added a fourth member) before a large school district in a city about 100 miles from our school. A Jewish educator and businessman saw the performance and asked to have lunch with us that day. He told the girls he would raise the money and send them to Warsaw, if they would go that spring (Irena was 91 and in poor health) and bring back her story. The man raised the money in twenty-four hours.

On May 22, 2001, Conard (with his wife Karen) traveled to Warsaw with four students, several parents (Bill and Phyllis Cambers, Debra Stewart and Bonie George. They spent time with Irena Sendler and then extended the boundaries of the classroom to the world. The Polish organization for the Children of the Holocaust arranged a meeting between the rescuers and the children saved, this was the first such meeting in many years. They also met a famous Polish poet who was saved by Irena, and an author of a well known memoir of the Holocaust who called the students rescuers of the rescuer; The Polish press made this story international news. Irena's story was finally reaching others. The students were called "rescuer's, rescuers of Irena's story." by one of the children Irena saved.

The group met Elzbieta Ficowska and heard her beautiful story of being rescued by Irena at the age of 5 months, carried out in a carpenter's box. A great circle of Polish friends have aided the project in many ways.

In 2002 the founders of the project and new students traveled to Poland with Mr. Conard. They interviewed 24 people connected to Irena and her story, plus visited with Irena on several occasions. They also visited Treblinka and retraced Irena's steps in the Warsaw Ghetto. The story of Irena Sendler continues to expand, continues to inspire. Irena had made false documents for people in the Warsaw area from 1939 to 1942, helping save many, BEFORE she joined the underground Zegota and started saving children. In fact, Irena's life has been one of standing up for others. Her father was an inspiration for serving the world. Irena wants us to mention that ten others were under her guidance in saving children from the Ghetto, and a number of others were helping outside the Ghetto.

Irena Sendler at home in Poland at age 91.

With this project the students (twelve are now working on the project -- including Travis Stewart, and Jaime Walker, now portraying Mrs. Rosner) are extending the classroom into the world community in many ways -- publishing the interviews, performing before larger audiences, sharing letters of Irena with students and educators, (copies have been requested and sent to over 250 schools) and arranging interviews with local and national press. Many requests have come from across the country about a possible book or screenplay. This project has broadened the world perspective of so many in this small Kansas community. Readers are invited to contact the project through their website.

Many parents gladly involved themselves in the project. A lady in the community has organized an Irena Sendler Day, and another has organized an Irena Sendler Week. The students continue to perform in front of local churches, civic groups and clubs. Life in a Jar has been presented in a number of states and on two summer tours. In November of 2004 and February of 2007, the Milken Family Foundation sponsored a performances of Life in a Jar for Los Angeles venues. (A DVD of the play was also produced.)

The Jewish community in Kansas City has reached out in a powerful way to involve itself with the project. The community as a whole has adopted the project -- and this courageous woman -- as a part of the family. We list the Jacobsons, Krigels and Isenbergs as families who have assisted in so many ways. Howard and Ro Isenberg established a scholarship fund for Uniontown students who needed help with college.

The story of Irena Sendler is spreading. From the Today Show, to CNN, Ladies Home Journal, the Chicago Tribune, and many television stations and newspapers. They all continue to present numerous articles about the Kansas kids and the Polish heroine. As child survivor, Renata Zajdman, a close friend of the project, says, "the children of Kansas put Irena's story on the map."

In 2005, the group again traveled to Poland for presentations of Life in a Jar. You may view the news section of this web site for information on that trip. An international Irena Sendler award was started in 2006. The President of Poland is preparing a nomination of Irena for the Nobel Peace Prize.

This project has allowed these students to reach out and change the world.

Irena Sendler passed away on Monday May 12, 2008 at 8:00 am in Warsaw, Poland. Memorial services are planned in numerous places, including Fort Scott, Kansas.

The life of Irena Sendler was one of great testimony, one of courage and love, one of respect for all people, regardless of race, religion and creed. She passed away peacefully, knowing that her message goes on. Our hearts and prayers go out to her worldwide family. She is gone, but will never be forgotten. Born in Warsaw, Poland, she live most of her young life in Otwock. Irena Sendlerowa led the rescue of 2,500 Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto during the Holocaust in World War II. She was recently nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Her legacy of repairing the world continues, as good continues to triumph over evil. Irena Sendlerowa was 98 years old.

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