New records, facts and stories are constantly coming to light which provide fresh perspectives for Holocaust studies. Some of the new information comes from survivors while other data is ascertained by researchers. One particularly moving account of heroism during the Holocaust was uncovered by a group of Kansas high school students whose dedication to publicizing the unique story that they discovered led to the creation of a wide-ranging project, Life in a Jar, which developed into a book, a website and a performance which has been viewed by thousands of people throughout the world.
In 1939 Irena Sendler, a young Polish social worker, joined the Zegota, the Polish underground which was dedicated to helping Poland’s Jews escape from the Nazis. By 1942, with the establishment of the Warsaw Ghetto, the Zegota sent Sendler into the ghetto in the guise of a health inspector, to ascertain what could be done to save some of the Jews interned within the ghetto walls.
Sendler quickly determined that the best opportunities for saving lives lay with removing children who were more likely to be successfully hidden by willing foster families. Sendler began by smuggling orphans out of the ghetto and advanced to removing children with living parents, “talking” she later said “the parents out of their children.” Sendler was able to convince the parents that the only chance that their children had of survival was to leave the ghetto and she removed, in total, over 2500 children, smuggling them out in toolboxes, under tram seats, through sewer pipes and through the abandoned courthouse which sat on the edge of the ghetto.
The Zagota located families who were prepared to hide Jewish children, not an easy task in Poland where a death sentence awaited any family that undertook such an action. Sendler herself carefully recorded the names of the children on tissue paper which she then buried in jars in her backyard. She hoped that, after the war, she would be able to reunite the children with their biological families and if not, at least with their Jewish communities.
In 1943 Sendler was arrested by the Gestapo which imprisoned and tortured her but she never revealed any information about “her” children. Zagota members succeeded in securing her release and she lived out the rest of the war in hiding.
Sendler’s story was discovered by chance by a group of students in the ’90s. After carefully researching the story they created the far-reaching project as part of the Lowell Milken Center an organization promoting a number of Holocaust related projects funded by Jewish businessman Lowell Milken. Their project, Life in a Jar now perpetuates the memory of the heroic woman by telling her story worldwide.