Kansas students shine spotlight
on Polish woman who rescued Jewish children
UNIONTOWN, Kan. - cover hed and deck
The Holocaust jar
Kansas students shine spotlight
on Polish woman who rescued Jewish children
When four high-school students in this small town decided
to focus their national history contest project on the
Holocaust, they flipped through legions of books and
magazines for ideas.
Then a 1994 U.S. News & World Report article
caught their attention. It was about the "other
Schindlers," or people who, like the main character
in Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List,"
saved Jews during World War II.
On the list was a Polish woman named Irena Sendler.
She was credited with saving 2,500 Jewish children in
the Warsaw ghettos. Oskar Schindler saved about 1,200.
"We thought this just had to be a mistake or something,"
said Norm Conard, the students' teacher at Uniontown
High School, which is about two hours' southeast of
"Maybe this Sendler saved 250, but not 2,500,"
he said. "We couldn't believe it. I mean, nobody
had ever even heard of this woman."
And so Conard and the students -- Elizabeth Cambers,
Sabrina Coons, Megan Stewart and Janice Underwood --
embarked on a project to uncover Sendler's story and
find out if, how and why one woman saved 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."
Along the way their research and the 10-minute play
they made about Sendler 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 last
spring to meet Sendler, who is now 92.
"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
"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"). Although Sendler couldn't travel
because of her poor health, two of the children she
rescued, now grown, came in her place.
Today the teens, as well as about a dozen other students,
continue to tell Sendler's story. They will tour several
Midwest cities this summer with the help of the Midwest
Center for Holocaust Education in Overland Park. In
the fall they will return to Kansas City, and they have
been invited to perform at a festival in Krakow, Poland,
"This really has taken on a life of its own,"
Conard said. "Not a day goes by without something
new happening on this project."
Getting it right
For the students, finding out about Sendler's life and
then putting together a play was a process that took
All they had to go on, in the beginning, was her name
on a list of "other Schindlers." Even an Internet
search came up with only the 1994 magazine article.
So the first script they created for the play was what
they "imagined" Sendler did. 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. This is the story she told:
Growing up in Warsaw, her father, a doctor, told her,
"If you see someone drowning, you jump in and save
them." With great risk to her life, Sendler, a
Christian, decided to help the Jews in the ghettos in
With the help of other members of the Polish underground,
called Zegota, children were smuggled out -- one infant
in a toolbox -- given new identities, taught Christian
ways and adopted by families who also faced death if
the Germans found out what they'd done. Sendler wrote
each child's name on a piece of paper, put it in a glass
jar and buried it next to an apple tree near her home.
To highlight this ingenuity, the Uniontown students
titled their play "The Holocaust and Life in a
To get into the ghettos, Sendler, in her early 30s at
the time, often posed as a nurse to get by the guards.
Then she convinced parents to surrender their children
to her. In 1943 Sendler was captured and tortured by
Germans who broke her arms and legs. They demanded the
list of children. She refused. Zegota bribed a guard
to rescue her, and Sendler went into hiding until the
end of the war.
After the war Sendler dug up the jars and began searching
for the children to reunite them with their birth parents.
She found many, but there were hundreds she could not
find, and most of the parents had died during the Holocaust.
The original list was lost over the years.
With Sendler's real story now in their hands, the students
revised their play. 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,"
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.
Megan Stewart, 17, said the Sendler project, which won
the state history competition two years ago, has changed
the lives of the four students.
Before the project her life basically revolved around
chores on the family farm, homework and friends. Now
it's about much more.
"This has opened my eyes to a whole new world,"
she said. "It's taught me that discrimination cannot
be accepted. Now, when I even see someone being made
fun of in the halls, I can't just watch it. I have to
go in and stand up for this person."
Three of the students are still in high school, two
are juniors and one is a sophomore. Sabrina Coons is
a freshman at Fort Scott Community College.
"Irena really changed our lives," Stewart
said. "We all have grown up, matured and have more
Connie McKee, minister of the Uniontown United Methodist
Church, said the community has embraced the girls and
their play, which was performed about eight times at
the church for the local community.
"When you see these girls dramatize what happened
to Irena, it touches your heart," McKee said. "There's
no other way to say it. I also believe they've brought
a new awareness to our community of the atrocities that
happened to the Jewish people."
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
"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."
Pinnacle in Poland
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
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.
At Uniontown High, Conard's classroom is like a shrine
to Sendler -- file cabinets full of photos and letters
from her; bulletin boards with clippings about her and
the girls; the jar with money in it. There's also a
bookcase full of books about the Holocaust, and guests
can watch a video about the students' trip to Poland.
Conard keeps his students busy, preparing the younger
ones to continue work on the Sendler project after the
original four girls graduate. And several publishing
and movie companies have contacted him to express interest
in the Sendler project.
"The girls don't want to be celebrities,"
Conard said, "but it's just such a great story."
To reach Ann Spivak, Kansas
City People editor, call (816) 234-4391 or send
e-mail to email@example.com.