A hero brought to stage

Mary Vallis, National Post  Published:

Monday, December 03, 2007

Eight years ago, deep in the heart of the American Midwest, inside a Kansas classroom, four students needed a National History Day project and told their teacher they wanted to learn more about the Holocaust.

Norm Conard reached into his desk, pulled out a file of clippings and handed them a magazine story that mentioned Irena Sendler, a name none of them recognized. The story said she had saved 2,500 children during the Holocaust.

"Personally, I thought it was a typo," Mr. Conard said. "I didn't know anything about  her."
A social worker, Ms. Sendler joined an underground organization that provided financial assistance and hiding places to Jews and helped smuggle children out of the Warsaw ghetto. Based on the scant information they found on the Internet, the students wrote a play,'Life in a Jar' that has changed their lives.

Years after graduating from high school, many of the original cast members are still travelling the world performing the show. To date, they have performed their play more than 225 times, throughout the United States, Poland and Canada. The performance, which moves audiences to tears each time, is headed for Toronto next spring.

Renata Zajdman will be in the audience. She was a child survivor rescued from the Warsaw ghetto through Ms. Sendler's network when she was just 14.

A Polish policeman pretended to arrest her and took her home in 1942; the underground network provided her with a new identity.

Now living in Montreal, Ms. Zajdman finally met Ms. Sendler in 1993. She says the students' play is sharing an important message: "It promotes tolerance, promotes that people can make choices in the most horrible of situations. To me, Irena is a shining example ... It's hard to believe that one woman could do what she did."

Born in 1910, Ms. Sendler was raised in Otwock, 25 kilometres southeast of Warsaw, and eventually became a social worker. During the Second World War, she joined Zegota, a secret network of Poles that provided financial assistance and hiding places to Jews, and became head of its children's division. She worked with a network of 25 collaborators, some of whom would accompany her into the Warsaw ghetto to rescue children; others would help her find homes for them and make false documents for their new, non-Jewish identities.

In her letters, she reveals details of how she convinced Jewish parents to trust her with their children, how she snuck them past Nazi guards and out of the Warsaw ghetto.

The smallest children, many of them infants, were smuggled out in boxes and wooden crates; others were snuck out through a courthouse and church with exits both inside the ghetto and outside its walls. Still more were placed on a morning tram with a trusted driver.

The play takes its name from Ms. Sendler's efforts to preserve the children's Jewish identities. On thin strips of blotting paper, she wrote down the youngest children's real and assumed names, along with the names and addresses of their parents. She rolled up the lists and sealed them in glass jars that she buried in a friend's garden to ensure they never fell into Nazi hands.

In 1943, the Gestapo arrested Ms. Sendler and threw her into prison, where she was tortured and interrogated about her efforts. But Zegota bribed a prison staffer who helped arrange her release; Ms. Sendler later saw her name on a list of executed prisoners.

When the Kansas students first searched for information on Ms. Sendler's grave site, they were shocked to discover that the woman they now call their hero was still alive. In 2000, the girls mailed Ms. Sendler a script for their original short play, along with US$3 to cover the costs of Ms. Sendler's reply. With her letter, she sent a receipt: She had donated the money to a "public institution that helps poor children."

The girls eventually flew to Poland to meet her in 2001. As publicity mounted around their touching project, so did recognition for Ms. Sendler.

The President of Poland and Prime Minister of Israel nominated her for a Nobel Peace Prize earlier this year; documentaries are under way and a Hollywood screenwriter is reportedly working on the story.

Ms. Sendler has sent dozens of letters and e-mails to the Kansas girls over the years, often in Polish and delivered through friends with computer access. She addresses the students as "my dear and beloved girls, very close to my heart."

In the letters, she describes in simple terms why she risked her life to save Jewish children. "My parents have taught me that if someone is drowning one always needs to rescue them," she wrote.
During the war, the entire Polish nation was drowning, but Jews were drowning most tragically of all, she went on. "For that reason, helping those who were most oppressed was the need of my heart."
Each time the students perform Life in a Jar, they believe they are sharing a bit of goodness.
Megan Stewart-Felt, one of the play's founding members, says: "It's become a part of my life. I can't imagine my life without Irena's story in it or telling people about it."

Mr. Conard, the teacher who first put them onto this story, has retired from teaching and now works alongside his former students at the Lowell Milken Center, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping students worldwide produce other projects that promote respect and understanding.
Several tailored their college studies so they could work full-time at the centre after graduation. Their goal, as stated on their foundation's Web site, is simple -- "To repair the world."

"The great part of the story, and we always say this to audiences," Mr. Conard said, "is that you have Protestant kids from rural Kansas who discover a Polish Catholic woman who saved Jewish children."