Kansas students' tribute to Shoah heroine comes to Montreal
By JANICE ARNOLD
Renata Zajdman of Montreal, a child survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto shares Irena Sendler's story with high shool students from Uniontown Kansas
MONTREAL - Deep in Kansas corn country, in a village called Uniontown (population less than 300), a group of young people, all Protestants, are devoted to emulating a courageous Polish Catholic woman, now in her 90s, who saved Jewish children during the Holocaust.
Borrowing the Hebrew term tikkun olam, the young people are seeking to repair the world like she did.
They are students and graduates of Uniontown High School where in 1999, teacher Norman Conard introduced them to Irena Sendler, who is recognized by Yad Vashem for rescuing 2,500 children from the Warsaw Ghetto. The centrepiece of The Irena Sendler Project is Life in a Jar, a multimedia performance about her life that conveys the message of respect and responsibility towards others.
They also created a website, www.irenesendler. org, and an annual teaching award in her name. Due in no small part to their efforts, Sendler has been nominated for this year's Nobel Peace Prize by the presidents of both Poland and Israel.
Life in a Jar has been presented more than 200 times throughout the United States, Poland and elsewhere, and it will make its Canadian premiere later this month at Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom.
Back in the fall of 1999, Conard encouraged his students to work on a year-long National History Day project, in keeping with the classroom motto "He who changes one person, changes the entire world."
Grade 9 students Megan Stewart, Elizabeth Cambers and Jessica Shelton, and Sabrina Coons, who was in Grade 11, were intrigued by a small item Conard showed them in a five-year-old issue of U.S. News and World Report (which is, incidentally, owned by former Montrealer Mortimer Zuckerman) about Sendler's heroism in 1942 and 1943.
Conard warned them that the figure of 2,500 children saved might be a typographical error and that they should investigate further to confirm it.
What the girls found out was that Sendler had been a social worker and a member of the underground Zegota organization, which rescued Jews from the Nazis, who persuaded families in the Warsaw Ghetto to let her smuggle their children out, either in disguise past the Nazi guards or through escape routes. She then placed them with non-Jewish families or hid them in convents and orphanages.
The title Life in a Jar comes from Sendler's habit of recording the children's names on lists that she put in jars and buried in a garden, so that some day she could dig them up and tell the children their true identity.
She was captured by the Nazis and tortured, but never revealed any of the children's whereabouts. She was saved from execution when the Polish underground bribed a guard. She went into hiding herself.
The students wrote Life in a Jar themselves, and they first showed it in their district, which has no Jews and few minorities. The community was so inspired, it began sponsoring an Irena Sendler Day, believing she was no longer alive.
The students subsequently discovered she was still living in Warsaw, and began a correspondence that continues to today. Sendler is now 97.
From then on, the girls brought a jar to every performance to raise funds for Sendler and other elderly Polish rescuers of Jews.
Life in a Jar began to gain national attention, and was put on around the United States, including Washington and New York. The information the students collected, including their letters from Sendler, became of interest to researchers.
In 2001, a Jewish businessman raised the money to send the four girls to Warsaw to meet Sendler. They also met children who had been rescued and other rescuers, and the story was reported widely by the Polish and international media.
Among those they got to know was Elzbieta Ficowska and Montrealer Renata Zajdman. Ficowska, who is president of the child survivors association in Poland, was five months old when Sendler smuggled her out of the ghetto, hidden in a carpenter's tool box.
Her good friend Zajdman was a youngster in the Warsaw Ghetto, living on the streets. She was not rescued directly by Sendler, but was helped by Zegota.
Zajdman first met Sendler in 1993 at a conference in Poland, and has been seeing to her welfare ever since, along with Ficowska.
They have been in continuous correspondence, and Zeidman visits Sendler every year. "She is physically frail, but as mentally sharp as ever, with an amazing memory," Zajdman said.
After years of poverty and ostracization during the Communist regime, Sendler is now in a good nursing home, thanks in some measure to the kids from Kansas.
Zajdman and Ficowska first saw Life in a Jar in Kansas City, 90 miles from Uniontown, at a gala evening in 2002, and they've been associated with the project ever since.
"It's very well done, very emotional," said Zajdman, who gone on tour with the group several times.
The founders and new students continued their research on Sendler, travelling to Poland, interviewing people connected to her story, and visiting the ghetto and Treblinka concentration camp. They learned that she had made false documents for many Jews between 1939 and 1942, before she joined Zegota.
Sendler has insisted that the youngsters include the 25 other people who worked under her guidance in saving the children, as well as others working outside the ghetto. Today, 12 young people are working on the Irena Sendler Project, including the original four girls, now young adults, and it has received assistance from the Milken Family Foundation and the Kansas City Jewish community.
Last year the inaugural $10,000 (US) Irena Sendler Award was presented by Conard to one teacher each in Poland and the United States for presenting Holocaust education in an outstanding way.
Conard himself is one of five inductees this June into the Emporia, Kansas-based National Teachers Hall of Fame.
More than 60 schools in Poland have since launched their own Sendler projects. Hundreds of schools in the United States and elsewhere also write each year wanting to develop a similar project and the Kansas group's dream is to have 500 schools making a difference thanks to the courage of one now very old lady in Poland.
Life in a Jar is being presented at the temple, with the support of the Eva and Hermann Holocaust Education Fund, May 25 from 10 a.m. to noon to high school students.
On May 27 at 7:30 p.m., it will be presented to the public. For more information, contact co-ordinator Rhona Samsonovitch at email@example.com. The troupe will also talk about the project at Shabbat services May 25 at 8:15 p.m. Admission is free, but reservations are necessary for the shows.
In addition, on May 26, the troupe will perform at Jean Brebeuf Parish in LaSalle and meet with the Polish-Jewish Heritage Foundation at the Polish consulate.