Wednesday 26 February 2014

Life in a Jar

"Every child saved with my help is the justification of my existence on this Earth, and not a title to glory." 
(Irena Sendler)

Irena Sendler courtesy

It was National History Day in the United States and four Kansas students decided to do a project on Irena Sendler, a social worker who saved 2500 Jewish children from Nazi death camps.  The four girls had trouble digging up information; the Internet offered only one website about Mrs. Sendler.  But the students persevered and because of their efforts, a book was written and a play was produced about the Polish woman.  Today, there are over 30,000 websites devoted to the topic.

Irena Sendler was an only child born in Warsaw Poland in 1910 to a doctor father and a housewife mother. Her dad treated typhus patients during the First World War, many of whom were Jewish.  Other doctors refused to treat them for fear of contracting the disease.  This is how Irena's dad died.  Warsaw's Jewish community was eternally grateful and gave Irena money to attend university where she studied Polish Literature.

Jewish children in the Warsaw Ghetto courtesy

During the Second World War, Nazis rounded up Warsaw's 450,000 Jews and placed them in the ghetto, an area the size of New York's Central Park.  With unhygienic, overcrowded conditions, many Jews got sick.  Starvation was prevalent.  Irena Sendler signed up to be part of the Jewish community called Zegota where she headed its children's division.  Irena dressed as a nurse to gain access to the ghetto where she would give food and find shelter for Jewish children.

Irena posing as a nurse to enter the ghetto

Irena used a nurse's uniform to gain access to the ghetto courtesy

Irena fabricated over 3000 false documents to spare the Jews from the Nazi death camps.  She also developped a way to smuggle Jewish children out of the ghetto.  Irena hid some under stretchers in ambulances.  She smuggled other children through the courthouse.  Still others she smuggled through the sewer or another underground passage.  She accompanied some on a trolley where she stored them in a sack, trunk or suitcase.  Finally, she had some children fake illness to be given permission to leave.  There was a church sealed off by the Nazis at the edge of the ghetto.  Irena would teach some children a Christian prayer.  If the child could recite it effectively, he was sometimes given access to the church where he escaped to the outside world.

For every child that Irena saved, she would write his/her name on a piece of tissue paper, roll it up, place it in a jar and then bury it, as a means of keeping a record (hence the play's name "Life in a Jar").

Warsaw Courthouse where Irena submitted her fake documents courtesy

On October 20, 1943, Irena saved her last child.  She was arrested by the Nazis.  In prison, she refused to give away the names of any of her accomplices, giving her interrogators fake names instead.  Her execution was planned; she even saw posters announcing her death.  But at the last minute, the Zegota bribed her executioner and she was set free.  Irena spent the duration of the war in hiding.  After V-E Day, Irena started digging up the bottles she had buried, trying to reunite children she had saved with surviving parents.  Sadly almost all of the parents had died at Treblinka.

Irena with one of the Jewish children courtesy 

Irena went on to have three children of her own.  Warsaw's Jewish community would remain eternally grateful to Irena Sendler's effort to save 2500 of its children.  She received several awards, had a tree planted in her honour and was sent a congratulatory letter from Pope John Paul II.

But it was a report by U.S. & News World Report from 1994 titled "Other Schindlers" which caught the attention of the four students from Kansas.  Their history day project blossomed into a play, "Life in a Jar" and a book Life in a Jar:  The Irena Sendler Project (Jack Mayer).

Irena passed away in 2008.  Thank you, Irena, for your courage!


Note:  For more information about heroes who saved Jews during the Second World War, visit:

1.   "Schindler's List" at
2.   "His Only Authority was His Courage" at

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