“He who changes one person, changes the world entire.”
With so much bad going on in this world, sometimes one needs to find just one thing which reminds us that there is still good in the world.
Five young women–Gabrielle Bradbury, Elizabeth Cambers, Sabrina Coons, Megan Stewart, and Janice Underwood of Uniontown High School, Uniontown, Kansas, were encouraged by a teacher whose classroom motto is this story’s opening line, to become involved in a year-long National History Day project. The girls decided that they wanted to produce a play, or group performance about the Holocaust. So they began searching for a topic among a box of clippings handed to them by their instructor. It was among those old newspapers and magazine stories that they found Irena Sendler (Sendlerowa) in an old US News and World Report article titled “The Other Schindlers”, and the Life in a Jar Project was born.
1910 – 2008
Warsaw , Poland
During the German occupation of Poland, Irena a devout Polish Catholic, obtained a special permit from the Warsaw Epidemic Control Department to enter the Warsaw Ghetto in order to check for signs of typhus, a serious concern for the Nazis who feared that the disease would spread out beyond the ghetto. As a plumbing/sewer specialist she organized a group of co-workers who would, with the assistance of the Catholic Church eventually smuggle 2,500 Jewish children out to a network of Churches, orphanages, and private homes, saving their lives. She moved in and out of the Warsaw ghetto while wearing a Jewish Star as a sign of her solidarity with the Jewish people, and to avoid attracting attention to herself.
Irena used every method and tool available to carry out her mission of mercy, and children were moved out in ambulances and trams, others just carried out.
Some children were taken out in gunnysacks or body bags. Some were buried inside loads of goods. A mechanic took a baby out in his toolbox. Some kids were carried out in potato sacks, others were placed in coffins, some entered a church in the Ghetto which had two entrances. One entrance opened into the Ghetto, the other opened into the Aryan side of Warsaw. They entered the church as Jews and exited as Christians.
Irena kept a dog in her yard that she trained to bark any time the Nazi soldiers let her in and out of the ghetto. The soldier’s attention was drawn by the barking dog, and the racket covered up any noises made by infants being smuggled out.
Irena kept a careful record of the names of all the kids she smuggled out and kept them in a glass jar, buried under a tree in her neighbor’s back yard, ironically, the tree faced the Nazi barracks.
On October 20, 1943, Irene was arrested, imprisoned and tortured by the Gestapo, she was severely beaten and her legs and feet were broken, leaving her permanently crippled. She was sent to the Pawiak Prison, but they couldn’t break her spirit.
Though she was the only one who knew the names and addresses of the families sheltering the Jewish children, she withstood the torture, that crippled her for life, refusing to betray either her associates or any of the Jewish children in hiding.
Irena was sentenced to death, but escaped thanks to the Polish underground resistance, who managed to bribe a Gestapo guard. She was hunted by the Gestapo for the rest of the war, but never apprehended.
After the war, Irena returned home and dug up her jars, hoping to reunite the rescued children with their surviving parents, but most had been gassed. Those children she helped then were placed into foster family homes or adopted.
After the war ended, Irena was again persecuted, this time by the Communist government of Poland in retaliation for her relations with the Polish government in exile, and the Home Army.
“Every child saved with my help is the justification of my existence on this Earth, and not a title to glory.”
In 1965, Irena was was recognized as one of the “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem, and awarded the Commander’s Cross by the Israeli Institute.
Yet, Irena’s story was largely unknown, until those four young girls from Kansas found her.
Since the formation of the Life in a Jar Project during the 2000-2001 school year, the play they produced based on Irena’s life has been staged over 300 times, Irena’s life was made into a TV movie, and she has been awarded many honors:
- In 2003, Pope John Paul II sent Sendler a personal letter praising her wartime efforts. On 10 October 2003 she received the Order of the White Eagle, Poland’s highest civilian decoration, and the Jan Karski Award “For Courage and Heart,” given by the American Center of Polish Culture in Washington, D.C. She was also awarded the Commander’s Cross with Star of the Order of Polonia Restituta (November 7, 2001).
- On 14 March 2007, Sendler was honored by Poland’s Senate. At age 97, she was unable to leave her nursing home to receive the honor, but she sent a statement through El?bieta Ficowska, whom Sendler had helped to save as an infant. Polish President Lech Kaczy?ski stated she “can justly be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.” On 11 April 2007, she received the Order of the Smile as the oldest recipient of the award.
- In May 2009, Irena Sendler was posthumously granted the Audrey Hepburn Humanitarian Award. The award, named in honor of the late actress and UNICEF ambassador, is presented to persons and organizations recognised for helping children. In its citation, the Audrey Hepburn Foundation recalled Irena Sendler’s heroic efforts that saved 2,500 Jewish children during the German occupation of Poland in World War II.
In 2007, Irena was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
She lost to Al Gore, who was awarded the prize for a slide show in global warming.
A year after Irena died, President Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work as a community organizer for ACORN
True, Irena did not win the Nobel Prize, but her reward was much greater:
Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Irena Sendler changed not one, but thousands of people. She most certainly changed the lives of five young women from Kansas, so far removed from the brutality and the horrors of life at the Warsaw Ghetto, that the events may as well have happened on a different world, in a different galaxy. Those five young women in turn have been responsible for changing thousands on their own; they changed me.
Today, on this Day of Atonement, I am praying that this article may change just one person, and in in turn, change the world entire.
G’mar Hatimah Tovah.