Over the past 14 years a great deal has been written about Irena Sendler, a Polish woman who smuggled over 2500 children out of the Warsaw Ghetto and secured them in hiding places throughout Poland until the war’s end. Jack Mayer’s book, Life in a Jar: The Irena Sendler Project examines the story as well as the processes that brought the incident to life.
A Polish social worker living in Warsaw, Irena Sendler joined the Zagota underground and obtained papers that allowed her to enter the Warsaw ghetto as an expert in infectious diseases. There Sendler tried to do what she could to help the half million Jews who were trapped in the ghetto without the bare essentials for survival.
At first Sendler brought food and medicine into the ghetto but she quickly realized that she could be of more assistance if she concentrated on bringing Jews OUT of the ghetto. Over the course of the years 1940-1943 Sendler and her Zagota comrades smuggled over 2500 children out of the ghetto. Sendler sedated the youngest children and smuggled them out in toolboxes and bags while the older children were led out through the sewers that ran under Warsaw. Sendler found hiding places for some children in convents, orphanages and with sympathetic Polish families and obtained false papers for other children so that they could be passed off as Christians. Sendler recorded the names and hiding places of each child and stuffed the papers into glass jars. The jars were buried in Sendler’s yard as she hoped that, someday, the children would be identified and reunited with their community.
After the war Sendler was one of the first Righteous Among the Nations honored by the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem. Her story, however, was quickly forgotten and she lived in Warsaw, unrecognized by the Communist Polish government which didn’t want to discuss Poland’s pre-war Jewish community.
In 1999 a group of schoolgirls from Uniontown, Kansas were assigned to research the Holocaust. They heard a rumor about Sendler and decided to build their assignment around Sendler’s wartime activities. Mayer’s book begins to veer from the better-known accounts of the Irena Sendler Project at this point. Whereas other written information has always focused on Sendler’s activities, Mayer focused his account on the creation and execution of the project itself.
The students, Elizabeth Cambers, Jessica Shelton, Megan Stewart and Sabrina Coons were students in a small, poor, rural school. Their high school social studies teacher, Norman Conrad, assigned them to research an aspect of the Holocaust. The girls’ initial research was sparked by a one-line reference to Sendler on a website. For many months the girls were unable to find additional data as, in 1999 there was almost no available information available about Sendler’s activities. But surprisingly, when the girls tried to write to Sendler, she answered — in the year 2000 the 90-something Sendler was still alive, living in Warsaw and enthralled with the girls’ work. She wrote ““To my dear and beloved girls very close to my heart. I am curious if you are an exception or more young people in your country are interested in the Holocaust. I think that your work is unique and worth disseminating.”
The students wrote up their history project and then developed it into a play called “Life in a Jar.” The play was performed throughout North America and, ultimately, in Poland. Educational visionary Lowell Milken helped the girls travel to Poland where they visited Sendler and met some of the children that she had saved. Milken was so taken by the project that he initiated a Center with Norman Conrad, the social studies teacher who had originally inspired the girls to embark on their research. Today the Lowell Milken Center highlights the stories of “unsung heroes” worldwide as they are researched and presented by American schoolchildren.
Mayer’s book goes beyond the basics of Sendler’s activities and the research that identified her and her wartime activities. He focuses on the understanding and respect that Sendler modeled as well as on the tenaciousness of the students. These girls had no personal interest in the incident but were able to overcome all obstacles to expose a story that has touched thousands of people throughout the world and inspired others to create similar research projects.