Students recover lost history

School project leads to the story of heroic defiance of Nazi horror

October 21, 2007|By Kirsten Scharnberg | Kirsten Scharnberg,Chicago Tribune

FORT SCOTT, Kan. -- The young Kansas women have become known as the "rescuers of the rescuer."

It started out simply enough: Four high school students collaborated to write a short play as a National History Day project.

What they accomplished has been stunning: They discovered, researched and introduced to the world an unsung Polish heroine of the Holocaust, a woman who saved some 2,500 Jewish children from the Warsaw ghetto yet remained virtually unknown to historians and the public for more than 60 years.

"It's a little mind-boggling," said Megan Stewart-Felt, one of the students, who is now 22. "Some days I almost can't believe this wonderful journey we've been on."

That journey began eight years ago when Stewart-Felt and three schoolmates at Uniontown High in southern Kansas decided to look into the life of Irena Sendler, a Polish Catholic social worker they had seen briefly mentioned in a magazine article about heroes of the Holocaust who never became as renowned as Oskar Schindler, the man who inspired the movie Schindler's List. The four students searched the Internet but could find only sparse details on what Sendler might have done.

But, with the help of a Jewish organization familiar with Sendler, the students tracked down the woman, who was living in a nursing home in Warsaw. They forged a friendship with her, made multiple trips to Poland to interview her and those she had saved, and accumulated the world's most extensive clearinghouse of research and artifacts of her life and her contribution to history.

They completed their 10-minute National History Day play but then expanded it into a 35-minute drama that they continue performing around the country and internationally to standing-room-only audiences.

They started a foundation in Sendler's name to keep her story alive, and one of the women helped launch this year an education center that helps schools assist students in tackling similar research projects.

And this month, Sendler, 97, was in the news as a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize, a fact that can be attributed almost entirely to four small-town students who were so inspired by her story that it has come to define their lives, even after they have graduated from high school and college, married and begun families of their own.

"Think of it," said Norm Conard, the quartet's former social studies teacher. "You have some rural, Protestant kids from a tiny place in Kansas who decide to tackle the story of a Polish Catholic woman who saved thousands of Jews, despite the fact that they were raised in a place where there is virtually no one of Jewish ancestry. It makes absolutely no sense that Irena's story would end up getting told like this."

The project started in the fall of 1999.

"We started trying to research Irena after seeing her mentioned in [an] article, but couldn't find much of anything on her," said one of the former students, Sabrina Coons-Murphy, 24. The other two are Jessica Shelton-Ripper, now 23, and Elizabeth Cambers, now 21.

The four girls asked at the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, a group that helps those who saved Jews during the Holocaust. The girls' goal was to find out where Sendler was buried. But the students learned Sendler was alive and living in Poland.

The students began corresponding with Sendler and finished their play about her life.

Sendler wrote letters describing the ways she had spirited children out of the Warsaw ghetto after gaining entrance as a city social worker and persuading their parents to give them up before they were taken away by the Nazis. In some cases she would sedate crying infants and sneak them out of the ghetto in medical bags or carpenter's boxes.

Sendler placed the children she rescued in the homes of non-Jewish Poles, in Catholic convents and in orphanages.

The students called their play Life in a Jar in reference to the fact that Sendler buried detailed lists of the ancestry and whereabouts of each child she rescued in glass jars under an apple tree in a friend's Warsaw yard. When she was later caught by the Nazis, she refused to reveal the location of the jars, even under torture and threat of execution.

In early 2000, the students performed Life in a Jar for the first time. Since then, the women have performed in 20 states and three countries. The play has been translated into Polish and now is performed by schoolchildren in Poland.

"The credit all goes to those kids in Kansas," said Renata Zajdman, who was rescued by Sendler. "If it were not for them, Irena would still be living in poverty. The president of Poland would not be kissing her hand. No one would bother with her. The children of Kansas put her on the map."

Kirsten Scharnberg writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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