In the darkest of times, strength of character still rises…in some.
Irena Sendler’s strength ran as deep as her courage ran high.
Irena passed away this week at the age of 98.
Who was Irena Sendler?
She was strength beyond measure.
She was courage defined.
She was humanity at its best.
She was willingness to help.
She was fear defied.
She was refusal to give in.
She was the woman who planned and organized the rescue of 2,500 Jewish children from certain death at the hands of the Nazis during World War II.
As a social worker in Warsaw, Poland, Irena was appalled by the treatment, murders, and annihilation of the Jewish people she had known all her life. To protect as many families as she could, Irena would document these families as being infected with terribly contagious diseases so they would not be visited by the Nazis. When the Nazis forced all Jews into one section of town and walled them off from the rest of society, Irena came up with a new way to protect as many of these hurting people as she could.
Organizing a team of 20 rescuers, Irena developed a plan for her and her team to enter the Warsaw Ghetto. Once inside, Irena convinced Jewish families with babies and small children to turn over their young ones to her and her team. Smuggling the babies and children out by any means possible (sometimes making them look like sacks of grain), Irena found non-Jewish families to adopt the children, placed them in convents or orphanages, and documented the children with Catholic identities.
Determined to not let the children’s true identities remain unknown, Irena wrote every name of every child on pieces of paper she kept hidden in jars in her home. As the Nazis started to move in on her, Irena hid the jars in one of her team member’s yard. Upon capture, Irena was beaten severely breaking both her feet and legs, crippling her for life, but Irena refused to give any information. Sentenced to death, Irena’s team bribed one of the Gestapo and at the last minute, Irena’s execution was halted. Although Irena eventually escaped from prison, she was hunted by the Gestapo throughout the remaining years of the war.
True to her character, after the war Irena faithfully sought out to reunite each rescued child with any surviving relatives throughout Europe. While most families perished during the horrors of the holocaust, a small number were able to be located.
Here’s where this story takes a twist.
A dark twist.
With the invasion of communism and eventual reign in Poland, Irena’s story remained silent for more than 40 years.
Irena’s heroism and acts of true greatness were virtually unknown to all in her home country.
But the truth ALWAYS finds exactly who it is meant to find.
Enter 1999 and Norman Conrad, rural Kansas high school history teacher.
Encouraging and challenging his students to extend the boundaries of the classroom; contribute to the teaching of history, tolerance, and respect; and do all of this with the goal of submitting a project to that year’s National History Day event.
Megan Stewart, Elizabeth Chambers and Jessica Shelton, all in ninth grade, and Sabrina Coons, eleventh grade, joined forces and set about finding a project to submit.
Having read a 1994 article on an historically unknown Irena Sendler, which he thought may have been in error, Mr. Conrad suggested the girls research the validity of the story and determine if a project could be developed from it.
Like I wrote before…
The truth ALWAYS finds who it is meant to find.
With great tenacity, these four young girls went to work.
And what a job they did.
Discovering not only the truth of Irena Sendler’s heroism, but Irena Sendler herself!
What grew to become a tremendous friendship of respect and admiration between the four girls and Irena also grew into a live presentation, Life in a Jar, that continues to be performed this day throughout the United States.
Through Life in a Jar, the national and international media learned the story of Irena Sendler and now, so has the world.
To learn more about Life in a Jar and Irena Sendler, honorary citizen of Israel; recipient of the internationally prestigious Order of the Smile; recipient of Poland’s highest honor, Order of the White Eagle; title bearer of Righteous Among Nations; and Noble Peace Prize nominee, visit Life in a Jar: The Irena Sendler Project.