New Horizon, September 2001
'In your sensitive hearts you unconsciously felt that what is generally referred to in your country as the Holocaust is inadequately understood. You decided to seek out the truth. And a small, faint path led you to me' - wrote Irena (wartime code name 'Jolanta') Sendlerowa to four Uniontown students in the State of Kansas.
They give me a seat right at the back, by the engine of the small Douglas DC-9. The loud roar is distracting. I'm about to meet a history teacher and four young women, students of a rural high school, in love with a Polish woman who rescued Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto.
Should I tell them about Jedwabne or not? - I say to myself. If I tell them, their love affair with the Poles will end. If I don't, they won't know the whole truth.
I am flying to Kansas from New York with a stopover in Detroit. Six hours in all. Then another two hours by car. A lot of time in which to decide. And yet when the sign 'Uniontown' appears on the gravel shoulder, I still haven't made a decision.
A few sparsely scattered buildings. Herds of cattle grazing on green hills. A huge, new high school built of red brick. This is where the story begins.
September 1999. Megan Stewart (15 years old) and Elizabeth Cambers (16) dash up to their history teacher, Norman Conard. Clutched in Megan's hand is a photocopied article clipped from the March 21, 1994 issue of U.S. News & World Report. 'Here's our project for the history contest!' she announces.
Norman Conard: 'The article came out after Spielberg's film. It was about people who rescued large numbers of Jews but who never became famous like Schindler. One of them was a Polish woman, Irena Sendlerowa, who smuggled 2,500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto and farmed them out to Christian families. She buried their names, in jars, in her garden, so that after the war they could be returned to their parents. I didn’t believe this number was accurate, so I said to the girls: “OK, but first check to see that two and a half thousand is correct' ...
They check. It takes them half a year. They make several visits to the Kansas City Library, consult dozens of books, microfilms and articles, including specialist studies on Judaism and typhus. They get access to government documents on the Holocaust, talk for hours on the telephone with World War II veterans, watch documentary films ordered by mail.
And none of this was for marks! - observes Norman Conard, amazed at the diligence of his students. Finally, they return to their teacher with a pile of corroborating evidence in hand. It's true. The underground organization 'Zegota,' whose operations Irena Sendlerowa coordinated, rescued 2,500 Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto.
Says Norman Conard pensively: 'The hero of Schindler's List is a materialistic businessman. In this case, however, the main role is played by a fragile woman. Her story has great power. That's why everyone was so eager to help my students in their research. A simple phone call was all that was needed...
In March of 2000, curious to know where Irena Sendlerowa was buried, Megan and Elizabeth (they are joined by Sabrina Coons and Janice Underwood) place a call to the Foundation of the Just in New York. A man answers the call.
'Irena Sendlerowa's still alive. She's 90 years old and lives in Warsaw,' he replies. 'Want her address?'
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.
Typing is not easy for her. She is now 91. Her deformed hands ache (the Gestapo broke them at the Pawiak Prison in Warsaw, and the bones have never properly set). She can hardly walk. Diabetes has ruined her eyesight. After every paragraph she pulls the sheet out of the typewriter and examines it for errors under a magnifying glass. She makes her corrections with a ball-point pen, then reinserts the sheet. The tiny room amplifies the labored tap-tapping of the keys.
It's hard for me to talk about it, but I'd like to be honest with you to the point of pain. I'm certain that with your sensitivity you will surely understand this. Last year I suffered a great tragedy - the death of my son. For a mother, this is the greatest misfortune she can experience.
They say that such wounds heal with the passage of time. But it's not the case. The pain increases, and so it will continue until the end.
She taps in a key but the machine fails to type the letter...
A Seventy-Two Minute Call
Uniontown. Four girl students poring over a half-typed and half-hand-written letter in Polish. My typewriter broke down so I have to finish by hand. I didn't write about my unhappiness earlier because, knowing that you have tender, sensitive hearts, I didn't wish to upset you. This time I had to inform you of my tragedy so that you might understand my mental state (which worsens by the day) and not hold it against me, since it really was my wish to see you. Recalling all those past experiences has made me feel worse. Forgive me, my dear, sweet children, but I won't be able to receive you in my present state of mind. All my love 'Jolanta' Irena Sendlerowa.
An English translation of the letter lies nearby. It has taken them several weeks to find a translator – through the Internet. No Poles living in the area. Only white Protestants believing in the Bible and a strict upbringing. They dislike promiscuity and Jews.
Krzysztof Zyskowski, a Polish ornithologist at Kansas City University (located one hundred and fifty kilometers north of Uniontown) translates the letters.
Norman Conard: - One day the principal called me into his office and presented me with a telephone bill. Who in my class - he asked - had racked up a 72 minute call to Kansas City? It took me a while to recall that that was how long the translation of one of Irena Sendlerowa's letters had taken over the phone...
But the Uniontown students are to meet Irena Sendlerowa after all. Thanks to a dramatic sketch they have written about her.
They don't know who is to play Irena Sendlerowa. Megan knows what she looks like from a photograph taken during the 40s but she's not comfortable in that role. Instead, she plays Irena's friend, Maria, and a Gestapo officer who is bribed to release Irena from Pawiak Prison. Elizabeth plays the role of Irena Sendlerowa.
After a month of rehearsals, they learn their acting is a disaster.
'The Holocaust or Life in a Jar' runs its premiere before the history class in February of 2000. The other students have numerous observations to make.
'They told me I had to show more emotion,' says Elizabeth. 'They didn't get the impression I wanted to save these children.'
They put on the play at the Assembly of God, Megan's Protestant church, located ten kilometers outside of Uniontown. When they finish, a man comes up to them: 'You've got it all wrong,' he says. 'Sendler was a man. I've seen the Spielberg movie.' But others in the audience weep.
Dean Myers, red-haired minister of the Assembly of God congregation: - They also performed the play during a Wednesday service. It was a blessing to us. We were able to see how much people can risk for others...After this, the play is shown to hundreds of students at schools as well as at seniors' homes throughout Kansas and Missouri. 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.
Norman Conard: - John was truly moved. There is a great deal of prejudice in the rural mid-West. Anti-Semitism too. No one expresses it openly, but it's firmly entrenched nevertheless. One of our students who played the part of a mother entrusting her children to Irena Sendlerowa - withdrew. Her parents didn't want her to play a Jewish woman. This story is one of the best responses to anti-Semitism. No moralizing necessary here...
In donating the money, John Shuchart sets two conditions: that they embrace Irena Sendlerowa for him, and that upon their return from Warsaw they tell him everything that takes place there.
* * *
From a letter of Irena Sendlerowa to her Uniontown student friends:
We, that is my contacts and I, would bring the children out by four methods: 1) A truck carrying various cleaning materials would be allowed into the Ghetto. Antoni Dabrowski was the driver and also a fellow-conspirator. At a prearranged place in the Ghetto he would pick up a child and, either myself, or one of my contacts. The child had to be very well concealed in the truck, inside some big box of cleaning materials or - alas - a potato sack. The wretched child, often forcibly taken from its parents or grandparents, would be in sheer terror and scream desperately. Alas, no one has ever described what occurs in the little heart of such a child: we had to pass through the gate which was always guarded by German sentries. At any moment they might hear the child. One day, Dabrowski said to me: 'Jolanta, I can't go with you any more on these extremely dangerous missions. One of these days the Germans are going to hear the pathetic screams and put all of us against the wall.'
I begged him to think of something, that he might continue working with us. A few days later, he said with an enormously satisfied look on his face: 'I've come up with a great idea. I'm going to take a very fierce dog with me. When we arrive at the gate, I'll step hard on his paw and his barking will drown out the child's screams.'
25 April 2001. B'nai Jehudah Synagogue in the suburbs of Kansas City. 250 people attending. John Shuchart approaches the microphone:
'How many people did Oscar Schindler save? One thousand. Irena Sendlerowa rescued two and a half thousand. And has anyone made a motion picture about her?' - he asks.
The comparison strikes home. The audience - students mostly - quiets down. Four girls come out on the small stage. A wrought iron gate bearing the name 'Warsaw Ghetto' provides the backdrop (the Uniontown students built it during farming class).
'Life in a Jar' lasts all of ten minutes (such were the requirements of the history contest). The girls rehearse it in the school gymnasium with the help of a stopwatch.
Irena Sendlerowa (Elizabeth Cambers), wearing a coat and kerchief, heads toward the Ghetto to rescue Jewish children. Her friend (Megan Stewart) holds her back. 'You'll be killed,' she says. Irena tries to convince a mother (Janice Underwood) to send her child away. She refuses and Irena promises to return. The next time, the mother agrees to hand her child over. That day she saw a Gestapo officer kill a woman on the street. Irena writes the child's name on a card and puts it in a jar which she buries in the garden. Finally, she is caught by the Gestapo. A friend in the underground resistance movement rescues her by bribing the guard.
The applause lasts for several minutes. The crying of a few of the students - even longer. Terry Goldberg, a Kansas City teacher, wipes her eyes with a tissue.
'Last summer I visited Yad Vashem in Israel,' she says. 'There I saw a tree planted by Irena Sendlerowa. I had no idea of the story behind it. Only now do I realize what a risk the Poles took in saving Jewish people.'The most moved is Rabbi Joshua Tanb: 'These girls - he observes - had the courage to come to a Jewish house of prayer and tell the Jews a fragment of their own history. If it had been me telling it, it would have moved no one. There he goes again, talking about the Holocaust – they’d say. He’s got to. He’s a rabbi! But these girls have shown us that this part of our history is important not only to the Jews...
After the performance Rabbi Tanb gives Norman Conard a hug. The teacher smiles with satisfaction. The power of this story - he sums up - has once again shocked us. People weep at every performance. Is it because of the girls' acting? No. The quality of the script? No. Then why? It's the story itself that draws tears. Jars with names in them can evoke only one reaction: wonder...
* * *
From Irena Sendlerowa's letter to her Uniontown student friends:
Another method of smuggling out children was the streetcar terminal located in the Ghetto. The husband of one of my contacts was a streetcar driver. On the days he was on duty, we would bring over a child. He would hide it in the empty streetcar and drive it over to the so-called 'Aryan side'. I, or one of my contacts, would be waiting there, to collect the child. We always took the child to one of four 'shelters' which were run only by the noblest and most courageous of our collaborators. In these shelters the child would be provided with the most tender care, so as to soothe, at least to a minimal degree, its childish pain - the tragedy of being separated from its love ones.
A big jar labeled 'Irena Sendlerowa' stands on Norman Conard's desk. It contains several crumpled banknotes and a number of coins, mostly one cent pieces. In one of their letters to Warsaw, the girls enclose a postal order in the amount of three dollars. In reply, they receive a receipt from Warsaw's Children's Home where 'Jolanta' has relayed the money.
The ornithologist from Kansas City translates the following: 'Do not send me any more money as I receive pension benefits. I can always find money to correspond with people who are dear to me.'
After sending their first letter in March of 2000, the girls have to wait half a year before receiving an answer. 'Jolanta' replies that they can ask her anything they like. So they ask.
How did she smuggle out the children? Did she still have contact with any of them? Had anyone made a film or written a book about her? Once they send her a T-shirt with Irena Sendlerowa's name and their signatures on it.
Each question is answered (there has been no film or book about her, a few of those rescued by 'Zegota' are still living in Poland).
On one occasion, she lectures them: 'I also beg you not to make a hero out of me as that would distress me terribly.'
* * *
From Irena Sendlerowa's letter to her Uniontown student friends:
3) Some of the Ghetto houses had cellars abutting on cellars belonging to Poles. The subsequent course of action was as described above.
Sabrina Coons (gesturing with her hands): - The project gave me the opportunity of exploring my roots. My great-grandmother was also in the Warsaw Ghetto! She was rescued by her fiance who was a German guard. She escaped and came to America...
Janice Underwood (weighing her words carefully): - I play her best friend who worries about her. If it had happened to me, I would have worried ten times as much. I've never been in such a situation...
Megan Stewart (with sadness in her voice): - In late November, during our second month of rehearsals, I asked my mother how she would feel if she had to give me away and was not sure if she were losing me for ever. She burst into tears. She said that this was exactly what she was not sure of. That morning, she had found out that she had cancer. From that day on, I discussed the play with her every day. It was easier for me to play my role. From the stage at Shawnee Mission in Kansas City I saw a mother crying. I burst into tears myself...
Megan's mother, Debra (in a soft voice): - Megan saw me through my chemotherapy. She sat in the hospital for hours. That play drew us closer together. Megan has learned how precious people are. While I was at the hospital, she had to do the laundry, clean house and cook. Irena's story gave her strength...
Norman Conard (probingly): - Knowing Megan before she took on the play and now, you'd think Megan were two completely different people. Just a year ago, I was wondering what it was about the project that interested her. Now she's leader of the group. She's matured in an incredibly short time.
Elizabeth Cambers (earnestly): - Before, I had no idea what the Holocaust was. I'd seen photos of dead people. I knew something really evil had happened. I wanted to know why. I would never have done what Irena did. I can't compare her with any other historical figure. She's at the top of my list of heroes...
Norman Conard: - Elizabeth's mother is a drug addict. Her father's forbidden, by court order, to see her...
Elizabeth's grandmother, Debbie: - Elizabeth has grown as a result of the project. When she was five years old, her mother abandoned her in Kansas City. She appeared at our door without a word of explanation. We've no idea how she found us. She was a nervous wreck. She didn't know how to eat her meat. Didn't listen to us. Did things out of spite. Now we're going with her to Poland, to meet Irena and give Elizabeth support. She needs someone she can rely on. I've never been overseas...
Janice Underwood (earnestly): - I want to be a psychiatrist. I was the last to join the group. The story just caught my interest. In her next letter Irena Sendlerowa welcomed me as the newest member of the group, and told me she loved me as much as the other girls. Now she's my hero. The play has taught me to speak to in front of large groups. I always used to be shy...
Janice's mother, Diane, a teacher's aid at the public school across the street: – I had a good weep when I saw them rehearse in the gym. Then they staged a rehearsal at my house. They asked me if they should change something. But what was I to tell them? I don't know a tenth of what they know about the Holocaust. I have a dim recollection from school that it was something tragic. I'm happy Janice is going to Poland. The hardest thing will be seeing Auschwitz. She just got her passport. I don't have mine...
A nation-wide TV station learns about the play and puts it on the air. Reporters begin descending on Uniontown. After the contest finals in Washington, the 'Sendler Quartet', as they come to be called, receives national exposure on C-Span and Public Radio Network.
They travel to New York to perform the play before the Foundation of the Just. 'It was on the fiftieth floor. With a view of Central Park!' says Megan, her eyes shining at the memory of it.
They win the state history contest in Kansas and qualify to go on to Washington. There they lose. 'All because of one reporter. He kept shoving his microphone under the noses of the jury members and asking them what they thought of us. That bugged them,' - explains Megan.
* * *
From Irena Sendlerowa's letter to her Uniontown student friends:
The fourth method: The Polish Courthouse was located inside the Ghetto. The main entrance was kept locked. You entered the building from the rear, that is from the so-called 'Aryan side' (I find this phrase very painful to use). Once again, we made secret contact with two sergeants-at-arms. At a given signal, these noble, incredibly courageous men would open the door from the Ghetto side. You simply walked in with the child and the trusted sergeant shepherded you out through to the Polish side.
All of these 'escape routes' involved small children only (there were also a few infants). For older, 12-, 13-year old children, as well as young people between the ages of 14 and 18, we resorted to altogether different methods.
By agreement with the Jewish police (who to a terrifying degree acquitted themselves badly with respect to their fellow-countrymen), the Germans organized special teams of skilled workmen and young people. Every morning, under strict control, these teams would be allowed out of the Ghetto to report to various workshops. They had to return after 10-12 hours of enormously exhausting work. Every day the Jewish Commune appointed a leader who would be responsible for both the team members' work and their return. The group was counted, and the same number of workers would have return at the end of the day. Now and then we would come across a young Jewish Commune worker who wished to leave the Ghetto. At such times we would add a few of 'our' boys and girls to that worker's team. The entire group would be assigned a meeting place on the 'Aryan side' of Grojecka Street. One of us would appear there and take 'our charges' to the house of one of our 'Zegota' collaborators. After two or three days, members of the Peoples' Army would come and take the youngsters to join the forest partisans.
Every year at the end of April, Norman Conard starts teaching his Grade 11 history unit about World War II. The teacher doesn't read The New York Times. He has never heard of Jedwabne. When I tell him about Polish anti-Semitism, he shows no surprise.
Norman Conard: - Show me the country where there are no anti-Semites. If I were a Pole, I'd be proud of Irena Sendlerowa, and tell everyone about her. I don't know what they're saying about the Poles in New York. For us, in Uniontown, you are a nation of heroes...
Translated by Christopher Zakrzewski.
Reprinted by permission of NEW HORIZON copyright 2001. All rights reserved