Irena Sendler and the Girls from Kansas

HUMANITIES, Summer 2020, Volume 41, Number 3

In this time of pandemic we celebrate the helpers and the heroes, some of whom forfeit their lives. During World War II, many Holocaust heroes were unsung; they died during the war or lived their lives quietly afterward. One such hero was Irena Sendler, a Polish Catholic social worker.

Between 1942 and 1943, Sendler and her network of 10 compatriots rescued 2,500 Jewish children from the Warsaw ghetto. Disguised as an infection-control nurse, Sendler knocked on doors in the ghetto, asking parents and grandparents to give up their children and grandchildren so that she could smuggle them out. Each child was given a new Polish name and forged identity papers and hidden in foster homes, orphanages, or convents. Sendler insisted that lists of the children be kept, documenting their Jewish and Polish names, so that after the war they would know their original identities. She hid the lists in milk jars that were buried in the backyard of one of her co-conspirators.

A sepia photo of a young Irena Sendler, in Warsaw, circa 1930.
Photo caption

A young Irena Sendler, in Warsaw, circa 1930.

— AF Fotografie / Alamy Stock Photo

After the war, Poland’s Communist government persecuted members of Poland’s wartime resistance, Zegota, of which Sendler was a part. They were harassed, interrogated, imprisoned, and even executed. Sendler and others who rescued Jews during the war kept silent. Almost no one knew of Sendler and her heroism.

She would have remained an unsung hero were it not for three teenage American girls who discovered her forgotten story 60 years later. Liz, Megan, and Sabrina, who began as students of history for a National History Day competition, became recorders of history, championing Sendler’s legacy in Poland, the U.S., and around the world. Three teenagers from rural Kansas helped crack open the silence about the Holocaust in Poland.

My first brush with this story came in the winter of 2001, in my Middlebury, Vermont, pediatric office, while going through my mail. This was before the electronic health record, and I daily triaged a prodigious stack of paper. Everything had about three seconds to be kept, filed, recycled, or thrown away.

I am a member of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM). Each year I send a contribution, and they send me a calendar highlighting 12 monthly Holocaust heroes. As I quickly flipped through, I was brought up short by the November entry. It was the photo that stopped me—a young Irena Sendler, twenty-nine years old, who looked a lot like my niece. I read the short paragraph below the photo:

Irena Sendlerowa, (1916–UNKNOWN) As head of the children’s division of Zegota, the Polish underground Council for Aid to Jews, social worker Irena Sendlerowa (code name “Jolanta”) helped smuggle more than 2,500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw ghetto. Hiding them in orphanages, convents, schools, hospitals, and private homes, she provided each child with a new identity, carefully recording in code their Jewish names and placements so that surviving relatives could find them after the war. Arrested by the Gestapo in the fall of 1943, Sendlerowa was sentenced to death. Zegota rescued her before her execution. She assumed a new identity and continued her work for Zegota.

I was stunned. I’m a child of Holocaust survivors. How could I not know Irena Sendler’s story? Everybody knows Oskar Schindler, who rescued 1,100 Jews from a German concentration camp in Poland and whose story was told in the Steven Spielberg film Schindler’s List. Even at the USHMM, the preeminent scholars of the Holocaust didn’t know much about Sendler. They had her birth year wrong (it was 1910, I later found out), and they didn’t know if she was still alive.

I kept this calendar in a file labeled “Interesting Stuff.” And there it sat for almost three years.

Black and white photo of children, in various costumes.
Photo caption

These children rescued by Sendler were sent to live with new identities at a Polish convent, circa 1943.

— World History Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

Then, in February 2004, I came into my office one night to see a sick child. On my desk someone had left a copy of the Ladies Home Journal, opened to an article, “The Woman Who Loved Children.” It was about Irena Sendler and three Kansas teens who uncovered her story. The article explained that, in 1999, while planning a National History Day project, they found a brief reference to Sendler in a U.S. News and World Report article entitled “The Other Schindlers.” Sendler’s story inspired their NHD project: a play they wrote and performed called Life in a Jar. It retold, in dramatic form, the emotional story of Sendler knocking on ghetto doors and asking Jewish parents to give up their children to save them. The title, Life in a Jar, refers to the lists Sendler buried.

The teens read that Irena had been arrested in 1943 by the Gestapo and tortured in Pawiak Prison, the most notorious prison in the ghetto, from which almost no one escaped. Logically, they began searching cemetery records and reached out to the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, seeking information about where she might be buried. Soon after, they received a letter from the foundation, saying that Sendler was alive! She was in her nineties and living in poverty with her daughter-in-law in Warsaw. The foundation then put them in touch with Sendler.

The three students made plans to travel to Poland and meet Sendler, first trying to raise money through candy sales, until philanthropists and Holocaust survivors from the Kansas City Jewish community stepped in to help cover the trip. Traveling out of the country for the first time (the first time on a plane for one of them), the girls finally met Sendler at her Warsaw home in 2001. They maintained a tender friendship with her for the next seven years until she passed, making several trips to Poland to visit her, each time performing Life in a Jar at various venues. And they began working with Polish high school students who were telling the forgotten stories of rescuers from their own communities.

The original three students—Liz, Megan, and Sabring—are joined by Jessica Shleton-Ripper (third from left), who performed many times with Life in a Jar. Here they visit the Irena Sendler exhibit at the Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes in Fort, Scott, Kansas, in 2018. They are standing in front of exhibit walls that say "Preserving A Legacy" and "A Heroine Comes to Life".
Photo caption

The original three students—Liz,Megan, and Sabrina—are joined by Jessica Shelton-Ripper (third from left), who performed many times with Life in a Jar. Here they visit the Irena Sendler exhibit at the Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes in Fort Scott, Kansas, in 2018.

— Kenny Felt

As I read the Ladies Home Journal article, I remembered the USHMM calendar. This story now took on a new dimension. I have been a closet writer most of my life, and I was thinking about writing a novella about the Warsaw ghetto. Irena Sendler seemed like a compelling character, and I wanted to know more about her. I was also intrigued by the two stories—Irena’s wartime history and the contemporary story of three Kansas teens. I called their teacher in Kansas, Norm Conard.

“It’s serendipitous that you should call,” he said. “We’re looking for someone to write these two stories.”

I hesitated. I had not written nonfiction before, only fiction and poetry. But I felt the powerful synergy of these two stories. I was not eager to write a wartime history of a Holocaust hero because most Holocaust literature leaves me angry, sad, depressed, and frustrated. But this story was different—an inspiring story of three typical American teenagers who helped restore the history of a great hero.

I agreed to write the story and, in 2004, visited Uniontown, Kansas, where the girls went to school. A small town with a population of 264, it was down on its luck. Many stores were shuttered. It had the look of a Dorothea Lange or Walker Evans black-and-white photo from the Depression. I met Norm and the girls at the high school, and I was hooked.

Uniontown High School, with only about 120 students, is one of the lowest-income school districts in Kansas. There was no diversity in the school—never a Jew, an African American, or even a Catholic—yet these teens had discovered Sendler’s story and told the world. I spent a week interviewing the students, their families, their teacher, community members, and Holocaust survivors from Kansas City who had taken a great interest in the play and the Irena Sendler project.

My wife and I accompanied the students and Conard to Poland on their third visit, in 2005. I was able to do more extensive research and interview Sendler, Holocaust scholars, and some of the children Sendler had rescued, now in their sixties and seventies. We met Elzbieta Ficowska, rescued as a six-month-old infant. Sendler had sedated her and put her in a carpenter’s box. Her parents kissed their baby good-bye and left a small spoon in the box with her name inscribed on one side and her birthdate on the other. It is the only memento of her parents, who were murdered at Treblinka. She and I have become good friends, and I have held her spoon many times, always with tears. Ficowska became one of Sendler’s caregivers and the chairperson of the Association of Children of the Holocaust in Poland.

It was Sendler’s ninety-fifth birthday when I interviewed her. She was energetic, and her memory was clear and specific. She wanted to be sure that I credited all of her network of rescuers and liaisons. She ensured that I had everyone’s name spelled correctly.

Side portrait of Sendler with books and pots in the background. She is wearing black and a black headband.
Photo caption

Megan took this picture of Sendler on May 3, 2008, during a visit to Poland. Sendler passed away nine days later on May 12.

— Megan Felt

Poland was arguably the most victimized country in occupied Europe. The consequence for hiding or even feeding a Jew was execution, often in public as a warning to other Poles. When I asked Sendler why she put herself and her family at such risk, she said, “It was a need of my heart.” She rejected the appellation of hero. “I only did what any decent person would do. . . . The heroes were the babies—they were the heroes of their mothers’ hearts. . . . It was the parents and grandparents who gave up their children, they were the true heroes.”

She said it was her father’s teaching that inspired her. “If you see someone drowning you must rescue them, even if you cannot swim.” And “there are only two kinds of people in the world, good and bad, regardless of race, religion, or creed. And most people are good.”

She lamented that she had not done enough—for every child they saved almost one hundred went to their deaths at Treblinka.

Sendler has become a Polish national hero. Poles have been eager to tell their stories, in part because the Life in a Jar project stimulated Polish/Jewish dialog as well as scholarship about Poland during the German occupation. Although there has been a disturbing return of anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial in Poland, Sendler’s story continues to be told.

Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem, recognizes more Righteous Gentiles—those who rescued out of principle, not for personal gain—from Poland than from any other country in occupied Europe. In 2019, it listed 27,362 Righteous Gentiles, with 6,992 from Poland, or around 26 percent. But because of postwar Poland’s Communist anti-Semitism, Polish rescuers who had received Yad Vashem medals hid them and told no one of their wartime activities.

At one performance of Life in a Jar in Warsaw, I sat beside an old man, old enough to have been an adult during the war. Throughout the performance he sat with his hands together, clutching something inside. After the performance I asked him about it, and he opened his hands to reveal his Yad Vashem medal. There were tears in his eyes as he explained, “I have kept this buried in my basement for 60 years. I told no one except my wife. I didn’t tell my children, family, friends, or coworkers. Now, because of these American students, I can show this proudly. It was the finest thing I have ever done.”

My first time in Warsaw, in 2005, I could find few markers of the Warsaw ghetto and no commemoration of the wall. In my research for the book, I found no reference to Irena Sendler before 2000 other than by Yad Vashem (1965 Righteous Gentile medal, and in 1983 a tree planted in her honor next to that of Raoul Wallenberg) and the U.S. News and World Report article that launched the Kansas teens on their National History Day project.

When I returned in 2013 for the release of the Polish translation of my 2011 book Life in a Jar: The Irena Sendler Project (also translated into Russian, Chinese, and Mongolian), I saw how much had changed in Poland. Where there had been no markers of the wall, now there is a footprint, 10 inches wide that says, “MUR GETTA/GHETTO WALL 1940–1943,” placed in sidewalks and lawns showing the exact location of the ghetto wall. At each of the 22 gates there is a memorial plaque with a map and description of what happened in the ghetto.

There are now 35 Irena Sendler schools in Poland, three in Germany, one in France, and one in England. I have met to discuss Sendler with Poland’s Deputy Foreign Secretary Jerzy Pomianowski, given radio, TV, and print interviews, and met with a journalist from the Catholic News Agency. The Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw opened in 2014, and the Lowell Milken Center Europe, a Polish office of the Irena Sendler/Life in a Jar Foundation, works with Polish teens on similar projects.

The project changed Poland as well as the American students who started it all. From my time with the Kansas teens, I learned that each girl knew something about losing or almost losing their own parent. Liz was abandoned by her parents as a young child and raised by her grandparents, Megan’s mother developed cancer, and Sabrina’s mother suddenly died during the project. The girls courageously allowed me to tell their own painful stories in my book. And it became clear to me that the last three children Irena Sendler rescued were the girls from Kansas.

Today, Elizabeth Cambers Hutton has two master’s degrees and teaches Holocaust history in Missouri. Sabrina Coons-Murphy is an elementary schoolteacher in Kansas. Megan Stewart Felt, the program coordinator for the Irena Sendler/Life in a Jar Foundation, still works with Norm Conard to further Sendler’s legacy and continues to play Sendler in performances of Life in a Jar.

The story has also changed me. I am a German-American Jew, born after the war to parents who narrowly escaped the Holocaust. Others in my family did not. For the first five years of my life I lived in upper Manhattan, in Washington Heights—an urban shtetl of German Jews who had survived the Holocaust. I didn’t speak English until I was five years old. The Holocaust was the baffling but iconic story of my childhood, a subject of nervous, hushed, adult conversation. It was frightening, mysterious, impossible to grasp, yet everywhere—it was the atmosphere. There was an awkward gracelessness on the part of those who lived through it, a furtiveness I now understand to be a kind of PTSD. It was the unacknowledged elephant in the living room—huge but shrouded.

It wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I learned that my grandfather had been arrested on Kristallnacht, November 9, 1938, and imprisoned in Dachau. My grandmother went to high school with one of the administrative guards at Dachau. He accepted a bribe from her, and my grandfather was released after six months. In 1999, my parents were interviewed as part of Steven Spielberg’s Shoah project. In the course of the interview my mother brought out her identity papers, marked “Jew,” and her nursing certificate, stamped with a swastika. My brother and I had never seen these artifacts.

Growing up as a child of survivors, I had a sense of mission about the Holocaust, but didn’t know how that would manifest. Now in my seventies, I find that in writing Life in a Jar, and speaking about it to new audiences, I am fulfilling that mission.

In my talks, sponsored by the Vermont Humanities Council, I emphasize how Sendler and the girls from Kansas were repairing the world—tikkun olam in Hebrew. Few of us would have the courage to do what Sendler did, but all of us can do what Liz, Megan, and Sabrina did—performing small acts of decency and respect for all people. Acts that change the world.