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Kansas students’ interest helped lead to Polish street being named for Irena Sendler, who saved children during Holocaust

  • Published Wednesday, May 15, 2013, at 3:11 p.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, May 15, 2013, at 8:26 p.m.

Polish officials have honored Irena Sendler, a Polish woman credited with saving 2,500 Jewish children from the Holocaust, by naming a walkway in a symbolically important spot after her.

Sendler was a social worker who smuggled Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II when Poland was occupied by Nazi Germany. The children were placed with Christian families and in convents and given new names. Sendler died in 2008.

Her work on her own and as part of the Polish resistance organization Zegota was virtually ignored in the decades after the war. But a group of students at a southeast Kansas high school helped tell her story to the world.

Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski and Warsaw Mayor Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz presided over the naming ceremony Wednesday. Among those present was Sendler’s daughter Janina Zgrzembska.

The walkway is in the former ghetto between a monument to the Jews who fought in the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto uprising and the new Museum of the History of Polish Jews.

Sendler was captured by the Nazis, tortured and was scheduled for execution before a sympathetic guard aided in her escape. She went into hiding until the war ended.

In 1999, students at Uniontown (Kan.) High School – hunting for a topic to turn into a National History Day entry – came across a short magazine article about Sendler’s work. Thinking it had to be a mistake, they dug deeper. The more they learned, the more amazed they were by what Sendler and her network accomplished.

That research led them to write a play, “Life in a Jar,” which they performed on National History Day in Washington, D.C., in 2000. The play won no top awards, but the students were flown to New York to perform it for the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous.

The students planned to retire the play and move on to their next project until an Eagle story about Sendler and the students spawned numerous requests to see “Life in a Jar.” The more shows the students performed, the more interest blossomed.

When the students discovered Sendler was still alive and living in Warsaw, they began corresponding with her. They tinkered with the play, adding details Sendler mentioned in her letters. A benefactor helped raise money to send the cast and teacher Norman Conard to Poland to meet Sendler.

Their arrival was national news in Poland, and Sendler’s story spread worldwide. She was eventually nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Though the original cast members have long since graduated, “Life in a Jar” lives on. With other students stepping into the roles of the expanded and more-detailed play, it has been performed 315 times around the nation and overseas.

Students in schools elsewhere have begun performing the play as well.

Contributing: Associated Press

Reach Stan Finger at 316-268-6437 or sfinger@wichitaeagle.com.

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