Working as a Catholic social worker in the underground network Zegota during World War II, Irena Sendler headed an operation to smuggle Jewish children out of the Warsaw ghetto. Over 16 months, her volunteers spirited youngsters out in sacks, suitcases or body bags, through sewers, basements and subterranean passageways. Because Sendler eventually hoped to reunite the children with their parents, she scribbled their names and locations on scraps of paper and buried them in jars in a garden. She did not reveal the names even when she was captured and tortured by the Gestapo, whose beatings broke her legs and feet, and left her permanently disabled.
In all, she helped rescue approximately 2,500 Jews -- more than twice the number saved by Oskar Schindler -- although her equally heroic deeds remained obscure for decades after the war. Sendler remained a historical footnote, in fact, until three teenagers a continent away discovered her story and turned it into a play in 1999.
Since then, students at Uniontown High in Uniontown, Kan., have presented the interactive piece, "Life in a Jar," at schools and civil groups throughout the world. They've shared Sendler's story during interviews with outlets such as USA Today, Ladies Home Journal and CBS. During productions, they've passed a jar to collect funds for the 94-year-old rescuer -- who, as a result, has been able to move from her cramped apartment to a comfortable rest home.
As the 66th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the "night of broken glass" considered to be the start of the Holocaust, approaches this week, "Jar" comes to Southern California for performances sponsored by the Milken Family Foundation.
"We're hoping to convey the talmudic [mandate], 'He who saves one life, saves the entire world," "Jar" co-author Megan Stewart, 19, said of the production. "As Irena told us, 'You are like farmers. You don't sow seeds of food, but seeds of good. Try to make the circle of good that surrounds you grow bigger and bigger.'"
Although it is unusual to hear a Kansas non-Jew cite the Talmud, Uniontown is not the first rural school to capture headlines with a project involving Jews and the Shoah. Next year, Miramax will release the documentary, "Paper Clips," about a Holocaust memorial established by students in Whitwell, Tenn. -- which, like Uniontown (population 267) has no Jewish residents.
"We're predominantly white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant, with a few Catholics and Hispanics," Uniontown history teacher Norman Conard said of the high school. "There's very little diversity."
Which is one reason Conard encouraged classmates Stewart, Elizabeth Cambers and Sabrina Coons to select a topic promoting diversity and tolerance for a National History Day contest in 1999. The students decided on Sendler after reading a short 1994 article on the social worker in U.S. News & World Report.
"We were captivated by the sheer number of people she helped save," Cambers, 20, said. "We thought '2,500' must be a typo."
Since Uniontown High doesn't have a library, the students struggled to find information about Sendler online; while much had been written about fellow Poles Schindler and Wladyslaw Szpilman of "The Pianist," the girls found only brief references to Sendler. Because they assumed she had died, they contacted the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous to locate her grave; instead, they learned she was alive, if ailing and in a wheelchair, in Warsaw. They promptly wrote her a letter and an international friendship began.
Meanwhile, "Jar" won the state level of the National History Day project and productions were booked throughout Kansas; one Jewish viewer was so impressed he raised funds to send the authors to Poland to meet Sendler in 2001.
When the students finally greeted the 4-foot-11 rescuer, "We ran up and hugged her and cried," Cambers said. "We told her she is our hero, but she said she doesn't think of herself as a hero. 'Heroes do extraordinary things,' she told us; she just did what she had to do."
The students have tried to follow her example by raising money for Sendler and other impoverished rescuers, who will receive wheelchairs courtesy of the "Jar" project. Because of the media attention, the Zegota activist has also received numerous honors, including a $10,000 humanitarian award from the American Center of Polish Culture in Washington, D.C. in 2003.
"I can't find the words in order to thank you, my dear girls," she wrote to "Jar's" authors. "Please be aware that all the honors now I am receiving from many parts are only due to your merit. Before the day you have written the play, "Life in a Jar," which you are presenting constantly, nobody in my own country and in the whole world cared about my person and my work during this war.... I hold you close to my heart. Irena-Jolanta loves you very much."
"Jar" performances are Nov. 6, 8 p.m, at the Jewish Community Center at Milken Jewish Community Campus, 22622 Vanowen St., West Hills, (818) 464-3200; and Nov. 7, 7 p.m., Culver-Palms United Methodist Church, 4464 Sepulveda Blvd. in Culver City, (310) 390-7717. All performances are free, but donations are encouraged to help care for elderly rescuers in Poland. For more information about the "Jar" project, visit www.irenasendler.org.