Irina Sendler – Polish Lady who Saved 2,500 lives during the Holocaust

Source: Chabad, date indeterminate

The young woman was 29-year-old Irena Sendler, a Polish Catholic social worker who saved 2,500 Jewish children from the Nazis. Unlike the names in the jar, which were unearthed soon after the Nazis’ defeat, Irena’s story and that of her fellow rescuers remained buried for nearly sixty years. That began to change in 1999, when four students at rural Uniontown High School in Kansas began researching possible projects for the National History Day competition. The students, Megan Stewart, Elizabeth Cambers, Jessica Shelton and Sabrina Coons, were intrigued by a sentence their teacher, Norman Conrad, showed them in an article from US News and World Report, which stated simply, “Irena Sendler saved 2,500 children from the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942–43.”

Elzbieta Ficowska was just five months old when she was placed in a carpenter’s box and smuggled out of the Warsaw Ghetto. She was placed with a Polish family on the “Aryan” side of the wall, and the young woman who carried her out of the Ghetto added tiny little Elzbieta’s name, parents’ names and new address to a piece of tissue paper, on which were written the details of other children she had smuggled out. The jar was later buried under an apple tree in the back yard of a friend’s home.

How could one person save 2,500 children?

Both teacher and students were convinced that it must have been a typo. How could one person save 2,500 children from the walled and heavily guarded Ghetto? They assumed that the article had meant to say 250.

“When you look at her,” Conrad told an interviewer, “you can’t imagine how she could walk past the Nazi guards, carrying a child in a gunny sack. How did she do it?”

It was a question that came up early on in the students’ research, as they began to realize that there had been no typo in the original article—Irena had indeed saved 2,500 children. Yet the students never expected to be able to ask Irena that question. They assumed that Irena, who was born in 1910 and had endured torture at the hands of the Gestapo during the war, must have passed away. They wanted to know where she was buried. They were thrilled to discover that she was still alive!

The girls, who by that time had written a ten-minute play, Life in a Jar, depicting Irena’s rescue efforts, decided to write to Irena, who was living with relatives in a tiny apartment in Warsaw. They mentioned their play, which had won the state history contest and would be performed at the National History Day competition. They asked for more details about her life, and they asked: where did she find the courage?

If a man is drowning, one must help him“My parents taught me,” Irena wrote back, “that if a man is drowning, it is irrelevant what is his religion or nationality. One must help him.”

Irena was born in Warsaw on February 15, 1910, but spent most of her youth in Otwock, a town with a vibrant Jewish community. At the end of World War I a typhus epidemic broke out, and Irena’s father, Dr. Stanislaw Krzyzanowski, devoted himself to caring for impoverished Jews suffering from the disease. He contracted typhus from his patients and passed away. Irena was just seven years old. She and her mother eventually returned to Warsaw, where Irena completed school and enrolled in Warsaw University.

Irena always made it clear to the families, convents and orphanages who took in children that these children were to be returned to their families after the war. She kept her detailed lists for this reason—so that families could be reunited.

Irena would have likely remained unknown to most of the world if not for the students from Kansas. After winning the state history competition in early 2000, they began performing the play in communities and schools around Kansas, and the media began to pick up on the story of this “female Schindler.” Uniontown proclaimed an Irena Sendler Day, and other towns followed suit.

They found out not only that Irena was alive and how to write to her; they also found a university student fluent in Polish who agreed to translate Irena’s letters to them. Then, in January 2001, they performed the play in Kansas City, where a local businessman suggested that they should meet Irena. They said that they were planning it and saving money. He asked them, “How old is she now?” When they answered that she was already 91, he used his contacts to raise the money—in just one day—for the students and their teacher, Norman Conrad, to fly to Poland to meet Irena. Norman’s wife and several students’ parents joined the trip.

Early on, Irena had written to them, “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 the 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.”

Irena’s last words to the students, on May 3, 2008, were, “You have changed Poland, you have changed the United States, you have changed the world. I love you very, very much.”

Source: Daily Mail, Aug 2008

Elzbieta Ficowska was smuggled out in a carpenter’s box at the age of six months, and re-homed with one of Irena’s closest colleagues. ‘I was 14 when I realised that my “father” had died in 1941, whereas I was born in 1942,’ she told me.

‘When I was 17, a friend said she’d heard I was Jewish. At that point, my Polish mum told me the truth, giving me a silver spoon engraved with my name and birth date, which my blood family had placed in the box with me.

Elzbieta has since heard that her Jewish family wept when they learned she was to be baptised. Later, though, they signalled their understanding by sending a white christening robe and a tiny gold cross through intermediaries.

Source: Canada Free Press, May 2008

Irena Sendler was born in Warsaw in 1910, the only child of Polish doctor,  Stanislaw Krzyzanowski. Later they lived in Otwock, a nearby town, where her father had a reputation as the only doctor who would treat Jewish patients during the typhoid epidemic.

until 1999 there were only a few remarks on her heroic life in the media and on the Web. One of them drew the attention of a history teacher from a high school in Uniontown, Kansas in the United States. Norm Conard showed a short clipping of the March 1994 News and World Report weekly to four of his students, all girls—Megan Steward, Elisabeth Cambers, Jessica Shelton and Sabrina Coons—asking them to do some research on the news which said ’Irena Sendler saved 2,500 children from the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942-43,” in their year-long National History Day project. At first, both the teacher and the students thought it was a typographical error, since no one among them had heard of this woman or her story. “It might be a mistake,” Mr. Conard told a Polish “Dziennik” daily in May 2008, “perhaps there were 25 children saved, or 250 at most?”

But the information proved true and that Polish woman, supposed to be dead for years, turned out a to be a living and most interesting witness!

The wartime story of Irena Sendler was not fully known to the American girl-students at the time they wrote a scenario of a short drama, entitled “Life in a Jar.” Their presentation enjoyed an enormous success and it was played over 240 times all over the United States and in Europe as of May, 2008. The performance brought a great popularity to the “Mother of the Children of the Holocaust.” But it also helped the young authors and actors to come over to Poland (in 2001 for the first time, and later in 2002 and 2005) to meet their heroine.

A long-time cordial correspondence developed between Megan, Elisabeth, Jessica and Sabrina from Uniontown and Irena in Warsaw, with a translation help from a Polish student, Anna Karasinska, from a local Kansas college. Mrs. Sendler wrote to them in one letter “…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.”

Thanks to the four curious girls from Kansas and their presentations of “Life in a Jar”, Irena Sendler was finally rediscovered in her own country, Poland, and in 2003 she was rewarded with the highest civilian decoration, the Order of White Eagle, then honored by the Polish Senate.

In 2007,  Irena Sendler was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by the efforts of the President of Poland Lech Kaczynski and many other people in Poland and abroad. She lost out to Al Gore, former Vice President of the United States, but she didn’t care about it. When she heard the news, Irena Sendler told her doctor, Hanna Wujkowska, that she was relieved.

For her the greatest “Noble Prize” were letters from children of Poland and the world, because there were schools named after her in many countries and she received letters with photos of children – for them she is somebody they could follow.

One year before her death, Irena Sendler wrote in a letter to the Polish Senate: “Every child saved with my help and the help of all the wonderful secret messengers, who today are no longer living, is the justification of my experience on this earth, and not a title to glory.

Source: Kansas City Star, Jul 2002

Conard and the students — Elizabeth Cambers, Sabrina Coons, Megan Stewart and Janice Underwood — embarked on a project to uncover Sendler’s story.

Their goal: Find out if, how and why one woman managed to save so many children during the Holocaust.

“We became obsessed with finding out everything we could about Irena,” said Elizabeth Cambers, 17. “She was this hero to us.”

As their research grew into a 10-minute play based on the work of Sendler, it caught the attention and the hearts of many people in the Kansas City Jewish community.

Some were so moved they provided financial help so the students and their teacher could travel to Warsaw, Poland, last spring to meet 92-year-old Sendler.

“What these girls have done is really phenomenal,” said John Shuchart, a Jewish educator in Kansas City. He had the students perform their play at Westridge Middle School and then helped them raise money to go to Poland to meet Sendler.

“By telling Irena’s story, by bringing it to life, they’ve rescued the rescuer,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like it in my life.”

This spring the students, Conard and Sendler were honored by Temple B’nai Jehudah in Kansas City at the first Tikkun Olam Awards Dinner. Tikkun Olam means to repair the world.

Later they contacted the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous in New York.

Eventually an official with that organization called back, saying he knew Sendler was alive and living in Warsaw.

He gave them her address.

The students wrote Sendler a letter. About six weeks later Sendler wrote back, in Polish.

“That was a tremendous thrill,” Conard said.

Sendler’s letters were translated by college students from Emporia State University and the University of Kansas.

In Kansas City their performances at schools and synagogues have stunned audiences.

“This play was just absolutely the most incredible experience,” said Annette Fish, program director at Temple B’nai Jehudah, where the girls performed for about 200 middle school students.

“After they were done, you could hear a pin drop,” she said.

Jason Barnett, 13, a Jew who attended the play, said he didn’t think a play about the Holocaust researched by four Christian girls from a small town would be very accurate or very detailed.

“I was wrong,” he said. “I was really surprised at how accurate and moving it was. And the fact that these girls aren’t Jewish or anything but that they care so much about this woman and what she did, that’s so cool.”

At each performance the teens put out a jar, asking for donations for Sendler, who lives in near poverty and is in ailing health. She lives in a nursing home and is being cared for by one of the women she rescued. So far the students have raised almost $6,000.

For the Jewish community in Kansas City, the students have given them a gift they’ll never forget _ a new piece of their history.

“We’ve let them know that this isn’t just a project that they did a few times and were done with, but that it was important for everyone to hear,” Shuchart said. “Emotionally, I think we’ve given them the impetus to keep going, to keep telling Irena’s story.”

Now Rosalyn and Howard Jacobson, a Jewish couple in Kansas City, are helping find college scholarship money so the students can continue their educations. They’ve already helped Coons this year.

“We are extremely grateful to all the people in Kansas City for supporting us,” Underwood said. “They’ve helped us keep this project alive and to keep it going. And I really can’t believe they honored us for something that Irena did, just for telling her story.”

Cambers agreed.

“This is so overwhelming for us,” she said. “The Jewish community of Kansas City has just taken us in and made us family. I think it’s great.”

Meeting Sendler, the students said, was the high point of the entire project.

“She just had the eyes of a saint,” Underwood said. “She hugged us, and she was just so pure and kind.”

In Poland the teens spent long hours with Sendler, talking to her and some of the women she rescued as children. The teens visited ghetto memorials, saw the prison where Irena was tortured and went to a courtyard where the Zegota met. Finally they visited the garden near Sendler’s home where the apple tree still stands where she buried the jars of names.

The students were treated like celebrities by the Polish media and performed their play for crowds.

Sendler gave the girls heart necklaces to take back to Kansas, a memory of her love for them. She still writes to the girls and last week sent more necklaces for other students now involved in the project.

Source: The New American, Mar 2013

In 2007, ABC News interviewed Irena in Warsaw. At the time, many of the surviving children whom she had saved worked to nominate Irena for the Nobel Peace Prize. Frustratingly, Al Gore won the prize that year, but this did not bother Irena in the least. Her characteristic humility showed forth in her interview with ABC:

I have to share all credit with the 30-odd people who worked with me. Alone, I couldn’t have done it. It was 30 brave people. None of them are alive today. One of my helpers was executed. I’m the only survivor.

Source:  Canadian Foundation of Polish-Jewish Heritage, date indeterminate

Elizabeth Cambers in the play Life in a Jar.

Warsaw. A small flat on Na Rozdrozu Square. Irena Sendlerowa inserts another sheet into her ancient typewriter. ‘My dear, sweet girls, so close to my heart!’ This is how she starts each of her letters to her young American friends.

At Westbridge School in Kansas City, three groups – each numbering a hundred students – watch the performance. Teacher John Shuchart, who is Jewish, sees the play as well. After the performance, he takes them to a restaurant. ‘I wanted to see if they saw this as merely one of many projects or if they really were so moved by the story,’ says John. In just a few minutes, he knows the story has changed their lives. After dinner, he asks: ‘Is there anything you’d like?’

‘Yes,’ replies Megan, ‘we’d like to meet Irena Sendlerowa.’

‘Then you’ll meet her,’ he promises. Two days later, he sends six and a half thousand dollars to Uniontown, for their trip to Poland. The money has been donated by his Jewish friends.


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