A short 90 minute drive from both Kansas City, Missouri and Lawrence, Kansas is a remarkable space in an unremarkable place. Fort Scott, Kansas was the home to the 1st and 2nd Kansas Colored Infantry during the United States Civil War and the birthday place of photographer Gordon Parks. It is also home to the Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes. In this brick building, one will find a tree with a pickle jar by it. It is a reminder of the story of Irena Sendler, a Pole who saved 2500 Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto.
Why would a small town in Kansas have a memorial to Irena Sendler? It all started with a history assignment. Fifteen miles away from Fort Scott was Uniontown High School. Every year Norman Conard would engage his students in project based learning. They were to find unsung heroes of today or in history and create a sharable project about them.
In 1999 Freshman Megan Stewart and Elizabeth Cambers and Junior Sabrina Coons all wanted to learn more about the Holocaust but didn’t know where to start. Their teacher gave them a box of clippings which included a paragraph from a March 1994 issue of U.S. News and World Report about other people who saved Jewish people like businessman Oskar Schindler had whose story was turned into the movie Schindler’s list. Irena Sendler was mentioned that she had saved 2500 children. The girls were convinced it was a typo because surely someone who was that heroic would have been known.
A web search only brought one page that had any information about Irena Sendler: The Jewish Virtual Library. In an email the Library confirmed the number of children saved and provided Megan, Elizabeth, and Sabrina with her address in Poland. They wrote her and included the play Life in a Jar they had written about their heroism, their pictures, and money so she could reply to them.
The girls were excited one day to get a response from their hero. The first line of the response was “To my dear and beloved girls close to my heart”. This started a back and forth correspondence between the girls and Irena.
The girls started selling candy bars to raise money to go to Poland to visit her. They only had raised $75 when a Kansas City businessman started raising funds for them. Within 48 hours he had raised enough money for the girls to go to Poland and meet their hero. When they made it to Poland, Irena could identify all the students by name. The students gave her a pink heart signed by all of the students in their school. This was the first of five trips they made to visit with their new grandma.
As the girls shared their play with the local community, they were given more opportunities to share it with national and international audiences. They appeared on C-SPAN, National Public Radio, CBS, CNN, and The Today Show sharing the story of Irena. Because of them, her story became known.
In 2007 a grant was written to create the Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes to create a way to share this project based learning with teachers worldwide. That is why there is the brick building with a tree inside. Due to these three female students, more and more stories of unsung heroes are being researched and told.
Today Megan Stewart is program director for the Lowell Milken Center helping teachers take journeys to find other unsung heroes. Elizabeth Cambers-Hutton is teaching high school history in Lebanon, Missouri. Sabrina Coons-Murphy travels the Midwest presenting about Irena Sendler.
Most of us cannot remember a single assignment from our high school days, yet these three girls introduced an unsung hero to the world and still spread the word about her and other people we need to know. Irena’s final words to them were ““You have changed Poland; you have changed the United States; you have.”
But who exactly was Irena Sendler? Thanks to Steven Spielberg the entire world knows of the exploits of Oskar Schindler and the 1200 Jewish people he saved from the Nazi German’s death camps. Irena’s story keeps disappearing into the pages of history.
Born in 1910 Irena Krzyżanowska to a Catholic family, Sendler’s family taught her to stand up to injustice. Her father would treat local impoverished Jewish families for free with medication he stole from his place of employment. He told his daughter that at times the law and compassion stood in opposition; it was his belief that “decency trumped the law.”
Irena took her father’s advice to heart. In high school Irena witnessed two girls jump the only Jewish girl in her class at a nearby park. Irena jumped on the nearest girl’s back only to be beaten for her efforts. She studied law and Polish literature at college. She was suspended for sitting in the Jewish bench instead of the Aryan section of a lecture hall. In 1931 she married Mieczysław Sendler becoming Irena Sendler.
After a year’s suspension, Irena earned a degree in social work and started working at the Section for Mother and Child Assistance at the Citizen Committee for Helping the Unemployed. She operated canteens across the city providing for the welfare of those in need. When they were not allowed to provide for Jewish families, Irena started registering Jewish families as Christians.
After Poland’s surrender to the Nazi’s the few rights the Jewish population had were stripped. The Warsaw Ghetto was erected in 1940 placing 450,000 Jewish people in a guarded section of town the size of Central Park in New York City. Irena knew the only people that would survive were those that could leave the Ghetto. She had joined Zegota, the Council for Aid to Jews, organized by the Polish underground resistance movement.
Using her social work identification and Zegota provided forged documents Irena was allowed access to the Ghetto. Irena would bring food, clothing, and medicine to the people on the inside. Irena had now the impossible job – convincing parents to give them her children. Her plan was to place them in Christian homes or in Nun convent orphanages under assumed names. She would keep track of their Jewish names, their new Christian names, birthdates, location they’d be hidden and parents’ names on pieces of paper.
Her next hurdle was to get the children past the Nazi guards. A variety of methods were used including drugging the children and carrying them out in a gunny sack, through underground tunnels, or if they could recite Christian prayers through a church on the border of the Ghetto. Some children would be hidden under bodies in the morgue wagon. Boys might hide as girls in the orphanages since no one would check the privates of a girl to see if they were female.
The slips of the paper which identified the children were kept inside of glass jars that she buried under the apple tree across from Nazi headquarters. With those pieces of paper, students would be returned once the war was over and the Nazi’s defeated.
On October 18, 1943 Irena was arrested by the Gestapo. During her time being interrogated her legs and feet were broken but she never gave up anyone in the Zegota or admitted to smuggling the children. Members of the Zegota were able to bribe officials to put Irena on the executed list as she was on her way to death. Irena avoided the Gestapo for the rest of the war but continued to operate as part of the Zegota.
After the war, the Zegota and Irena tried to reunite the children with their parents. But that was not to happen; the majority of the parents had died either in the Nazi death camps or the Ghetto. Many children were spirited away to start lives in new countries. Others stayed with their Christian families. Irena continued to work in social work in Poland and was an active member of the communist party.
In 1965 she accorded the title of Righteous Among the Nations by the Yad Vashem organization in Jerusalem. When changes began to occur in 1980, Irena became active in the Solidarity movement. In 1985 she was able to travel to Israel when a tree was planted in her memory at the Garden of the Righteous among the Nations.
Irena’s story wasn’t widely known outside of tree in Jerusalem. In September 1999, her son died. Little did she know she’d be getting a new family that day. Halfway across the world in Uniontown, Kansas Megan Stewart, Elizabeth Cambers, and Sabrina Coons were starting on a project for history class. The name Irena Sendler was found on a scrap of paper. As the students learned the stories of the lady who planted names in jars under an apple tree, they wrote a play about her efforts called Life in a Jar. In 2001 the girls were able to make contact with Irena and visit her in home five times before her death.
Due to the discovery of this story, Irena’s story became known worldwide. Irena Sendler won the 2003 Jan Karski award for Valor and Courage from the American Polish Center in Washington D.C. In her native Poland the same year, she received the highest civilian decoration, the Order of the White Eagle. Even Pope John Paul II sent her a letter thanking her for her war time work.
Irena died on May 12, 2008 at the age of 98.
As I was reading and researching Irena’s story the most amazing part was not that she rescued 2500 children but that she was able to find safe havens for 2500 children. She is an inspiration to all who look at the world that is happening today and wondering how to make a change. Thanks to three Kansas Girls we know the story of another woman who knew you sometimes had to break the law to do the right thing. I hope to bring that fact that history is alive and important to my students this year. I know going through pages at the Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes may just be the place to start.
Written by Bridgette Moore (she/her) from Olathe, Kansas. Follow her on Twitter! This project, Tales from Wo-Fan’s Land, is a series of stories written by Frank Turner fans, inspired by his new album No Man’s Land.