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Kansas History Day - Holocaust and Life in a Jar

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Five young women--Gabrielle Bradbury, Elizabeth Cambers, Sabrina Coons, Megan Stewart, and Janice Underwood of Uniontown High School, Uniontown, Kansas, made an incredible discovery in their History Day class during the 2000-2001 year. This discovery would change their lives and that of a very special woman.

Senior Group Performance at National History Day, 2000They discovered a magazine clipping with the headline, "Irena Sendler saved 2,500 children from the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942-43." Their teacher, Milken educator Norman Conard, wondered if there was some mistake. He was unfamiliar with this woman's story. Conard, whose classroom motto is "he who changes one person, changes the world entire," encouraged the girls to pursue the topic searching for primary and secondary sources.

The students learned that Irena Sendler had been a non-Jewish social worker and was head of the children's section in the Polish underground movement known as Zegot during World War II. As a social worker, Sendler had access to the Warsaw Ghetto. Sendler risked her life to save the lives of thousands of Jewish children by coaxing Jewish parents and grandparents to relinquish their children to her. She knew that the Jewish children would, most likely, die in the Ghetto or in the death camps. She established a plan to smuggle the children past Nazi guards by putting them in body bags, saying they were dead or had typhus. Once outside the Ghetto, she found Polish families to adopt them.

Lists of children's names were buried in jars under this tree.Between 1942 and 1943, Sendler was able to rescue 2,500 children. She saved a list of the children's real names, stored them in jars for safe keeping, and buried the jars under a tree in her garden. She knew one day she would be able to dig up the jars and identify the children.

On October 20, 1943, Sendler was captured by the Nazi's and beated severely. The Polish underground eventually was able to bribe a guard for her release, and she went into hiding.

The Uniontown students searched for the final resting place of Irena and discovered she was still alive at the age of 91 and living in poverty in Warsaw, Poland. They began to collect money for Irena calling their collection jar, "Life in a Jar." They contacted some of the people Irena had saved.

Uniontown presentation of Life in a Jar For their History Day project, the students wrote a performance in which they portrayed the life of Irena Sendler. "Holocaust and Life in a Jar" received first place in the Senior Group Performance at the 2000 Kansas History Day competition in May 2000 and earned them a trip that June to National History Day near Washington, D.C. The students also performed the drama for numerous clubs and civic groups in the community. People were so inspired by the project that they sponsored an "Irena Sendler Day."

The Jewish Foundation for the Righteous in New York City offered assistance in sending the money the students had raised to a Polish bank in Warsaw for Irena. The students corresponded with Irena enlisted the help of a Polish student, who was attending a local college, to translate for them. "Your performance and work is continuing the effort I started over fifty years ago, you are my dearly beloved girls," wrote Irena. The students shared the letters with universities, historical societies, and the Chicago and New York Jewish Foundations.

C-SPAN, National Public Radio, and CBS, became interested in the story. Conard was contacted for the book and film rights to their story. The students 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.

In January 2001, they met John Shuchart, a Jewish educator and businessman, who told the girls he would raise the money and send them to Warsaw. He raised the money within 24 hours. The group traveled to Poland in May 2001 for an emotional meeting with the 91-year-old woman and heroine to the students. Sendler told the students she was just an ordinary person, not a hero. "I want the Jewish community to know that there was resistance and a spirit among the Jews in the Ghetto."

Uniontown student, Jess with Irena Sendler, 2005The students continued their performances and research and corresponding with Sendler and those she rescued. Three other students joined the group to provide assistance. "The story of Irena Sendler had a profound effect not only on those who have heard the story, but on the storytellers as well," said Conard. "The girls regularly write on their homework papers notes such as, 'I'm changing the world' and 'Irena's story must be told.' I've traveled with the girls to numerous performances and watched the great emotion that pours out of the audience during their presentation. They have literally taken our class motto and brought it to life."

Irena Sendler passed away in 2008 but her influence lives on today in part due to this History Day project from students in Kansas.  To learn more about what has occurred in the years since this performance first debuted visit Life in a Jar:  The Irena Sendler Project.