I told no one except my wife. We met Elzbieta Ficowska, rescued as a six-month-old infant.
I had not written nonfiction before, only fiction and poetry. It was frightening, mysterious, impossible to grasp, yet everywhere—it was the atmosphere. 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. Init listed 27, Righteous Gentiles, with 6, from Poland, or around 26 percent.
I read the short paragraph below the photo:. These children rescued by Sendler were sent to live with new identities at a Polish convent, circa Then, in FebruaryI came into my office one night to see a sick .
It is the only memento of her parents, who were murdered at Treblinka. In my research for the book, I found no reference to Irena Sendler before other than by Yad Vashem Righteous Gentile medal, and in a tree planted in her honor next to that of Raoul Wallenberg and the U. At each of the 22 gates there is a memorial plaque with a map and description of what happened in the ghetto. This story now took on a new dimension. 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.
She assumed a new identity and continued her work for Zegota. Many stores were shuttered. Now, because of these American students, I can show this proudly. Soon after, they received a letter from the foundation, saying that Sendler was alive!
Throughout the performance he sat with his hands together, clutching something inside. She was energetic, and her memory was clear and specific. My wife and I accompanied the students and Conard to Poland on their third visit, in 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. Sendler passed away nine days later on May Poland was arguably the most victimized country in occupied Europe. 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.
One such hero was Irena Sendler, a Polish Catholic social worker. Each child was given a new Polish name and forged identity papers and hidden in foster homes, orphanages, or convents. This was before the electronic health record, and I daily triaged a prodigious stack of paper. I called their teacher in Kansas, Norm Conard. Everything had about three seconds to be kept, filed, recycled, or thrown away. I have been a closet writer most of my life, and I was thinking about writing a novella about the Warsaw ghetto.
But this story was different—an inspiring story of three typical American teenagers who helped restore the history of a great hero.
I hesitated. Megan took this picture of Sendler on May 3,during a visit to Poland. As I quickly flipped through, I was brought up short by the November entry.
I was not eager to write a wartime history of a Holocaust hero because most Holocaust literature leaves me angry, sad, depressed, and frustrated. She lamented that she had not done enough—for every child they saved almost one hundred went to their deaths at Treblinka. She was in her nineties and living in poverty with her daughter-in-law in Warsaw.
The teens read that Irena had been arrested in by the Gestapo and tortured in Pawiak Prison, the most notorious prison in the ghetto, from which almost no one escaped. It was the photo that stopped me—a young Irena Sendler, twenty-nine years old, who looked a lot like my niece. In this time of pandemic we celebrate the helpers and the heroes, some of whom forfeit their lives. The project changed Poland as well as the American students who started it all.
It was the parents and grandparents who gave up their children, they were the true heroes. I am a member of the U. Each year I send a contribution, and they send me a calendar highlighting 12 monthly Holocaust heroes. 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. 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.
The title, Life in a Jar, refers to the lists Sendler buried. The story has also changed me. It was the finest thing I have ever done. Irena Sendler seemed like a compelling character, and I wanted to know more about her.
But I felt the powerful synergy of these two stories. Zegota rescued her before her execution. She would have remained an unsung hero were it not for three teenage American girls who discovered her forgotten story 60 years later. 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.
Uniontown High School, with only about students, is one of the lowest-income school districts in Kansas. Between andSendler and her network of 10 compatriots rescued 2, Jewish children from the Warsaw ghetto. I met Norm and the girls at the high school, and I was hooked. 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.
Logically, they began searching cemetery records and reached out to the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, seeking information about where she might be buried. She hid the lists in milk jars that were buried in the backyard of one of her co-conspirators. Others in my family did not. 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.
After the performance I asked him about it, and he opened his hands to reveal his Yad Vashem medal.
The foundation then put them in touch with Sendler. I was stunned. Sabrina Coons-Murphy is an elementary schoolteacher in Kansas. The article explained that, inwhile planning a National History Day project, they found a brief reference to Sendler in a U. 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. During World War II, many Holocaust heroes were unsung; they died during the war or lived their lives quietly afterward.
The consequence for hiding or even feeding a Jew was execution, often in public as a warning to other Poles. 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. She and I have become good friends, and I have held her spoon many times, always with tears.
The girls courageously allowed me to tell their own painful stories in my book. And most people are good. Sendler has become a Polish national hero. And they began working with Polish high school students who were telling the forgotten stories of rescuers from their own communities.
Sendler and others who rescued Jews during the war kept silent. Arrested by the Gestapo in the fall ofSendlerowa was sentenced to death. Almost no one knew of Sendler and her heroism. My first brush with this story came in the winter ofin my Middlebury, Vermont, pediatric office, while going through my mail.
She wanted to be sure that I credited all of her network of rescuers and liaisons. I am a German-American Jew, born after the war to parents who narrowly escaped the Holocaust. A small town with a population ofit was down on its luck.
Traveling out of the country for the first time the first time on a plane for one of themthe girls finally met Sendler at her Warsaw home in 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. They were harassed, interrogated, imprisoned, and even executed. Three teenagers from rural Kansas helped crack open the silence about the Holocaust in Poland.
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. It was the unacknowledged elephant in the living room—huge but shrouded.
National endowment for the humanities
The Holocaust was the baffling but iconic story of my childhood, a subject of nervous, hushed, adult conversation. My first time in Warsaw, inI could find few markers of the Warsaw ghetto and no commemoration of the wall. I agreed to write the story and, invisited Uniontown, Kansas, where the girls went to school. And it became clear to me that the last three children Irena Sendler rescued were the girls from Kansas. From my time with the Kansas teens, I learned that each girl knew something about losing or almost losing their own parent.