It’s hard to decide which story is more compelling — the one about Irena Sendler, a Polish Catholic who saved 2,500 Jewish children during the Holocaust, or that of four Protestant high school girls in tiny Uniontown, Kansas, who are almost single-handedly responsible for the world learning of Sendler’s remarkable acts.
Solidly Protestant, rural Uniontown sits near the Missouri border. The town of 300 has one high school with 120 students and an extraordinary history teacher named Norman Conard. Conard devised an annual research project for his students about individuals who had received little or no recognition for exceptional feats of heroism. One of the stories he would offer to his students each year was that of Irena Sendler, whom he’d read about in a 1994 “U.S. News and World Report” article on eight “other Schindlers.” Like the others in the news report, Sendler was virtually unknown, even in Poland, despite the fact that she had saved more than twice as many Jews as Oskar Schindler.
For five years, Conard couldn’t interest any of his students in Sendler’s story, but in 1999 9th grader Megan Stewart (now Felt) and three of her classmates decided they wanted to learn more about both Sendler and the Holocaust. The girls knew almost nothing about the Holocaust and, like everyone else in town except Conard, had never met any Jews. But what little they could discern from the brief news clipping captivated them.
Because there was very little information about Sendler in the article, they embarked on exhaustive research into Sendler’s life and everything else that seemed relevant — the Holocaust, Jews, Poland, the Warsaw Ghetto and World War II.
Using primary and secondary sources, they uncovered the details of Sendler’s extraordinary saga. They discovered that as a non-Jewish social worker and member of the underground Zegota group, she had gone into the Warsaw Ghetto and convinced parents and grandparents to turn their children over to her for safekeeping. Over the course of the war she was able to slip nearly 2,500 children past Nazi guards, sending them either to adoptive Polish families or to convents and orphanages. Sendler made lists of the children’s real names and hid them in jars she buried in a neighbor’s garden so she could someday dig up the jars, find the children, and tell them their real identities.
Sendler was eventually captured by the Nazis and severely tortured before Zegota gained her release by bribing a guard. She then went into hiding until after the war ended, later married and had two children. Although her name was entered as one of the Righteous Among Nations at Yad Vashem in the 1960s, the Communist government of Poland did not want to bring any attention to Jews or the Holocaust and the story of Sendler’s heroism was essentially lost.
As Stewart-Felt and the other students learned more, they decided to write a short play, titled “Life In A Jar,” as their research project despite the fact that none of them had any playwriting experience, there was no drama group at the high school, and no one in Uniontown had ever written a play. The play was a local success and the students decided the next step was to visit Sendler in Warsaw. They did so in 2001 and it was the coverage of that trip by the news media that spread Sendler’s story internationally. With the students’ help, she was nominated for the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize and although she didn’t win, she has been the subject of a PBS documentary and a television adaptation of “Life In A Jar.”
Sponsorship by Northwest Yeshiva High School means that local audiences will have a chance to see the play on April 1 at the Stroum Jewish Community Center on Mercer Island. Thanks to a grant from the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, the performance is free. A second performance the following morning will be presented for students from NYHS and the middle schools at the Jewish Day School, Seattle Hebrew Academy and Torah Day School.
Over the years, the students who created “Life In A Jar” have appeared on NPR, CBS, CNN and the Today Show, and in numerous newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times and New York Times. They have become so knowledgeable on the Holocaust, World War II and the Polish Underground that at least 20 colleges and universities are using their research and their letters from Irena in their curricula.
Since the first production in Uniontown of “Life In A Jar,” approximately 40 students from Uniontown High have appeared in the play, which has been presented more than 300 times around the world. In the intervening years, it’s been expanded from 10 to 45 minutes by adding music and two scenes that Irena suggested. Megan Stewart Felt continues in the lead role of Irena, but she is quick to point out that people don’t come to the play to see her, or the other actors.
“It’s Irena’s story,” Felt explained, “not us or our acting that draws people.”