Although Holocaust Remembrance Day has passed this year, some memorial projects continue to run year-round. One such project is Life in a Jar, which commemorates the courage of a Polish woman who has become known as the “female Oskar Schindler.”
Irena Sendler (1910–2008) was a young Polish social worker when the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939. She helped Jews who were trying to evade the Nazis to find hiding places. Together with a group of friends she joined the Zegota, an underground organization dedicated to helping the Jews. When the Warsaw ghetto was created in 1940, she obtained false papers that identified her as a nurse so that she would be able to enter the ghetto as a “health worker.”
Sendler brought food and medications into the ghetto and managed to smuggle children out when she left each day. The children were often drugged and stuffed into suitcases, bags, toolboxes and even coffins. Together with other Zegota members, Sendler identified sewer pipes and underground passages that she could use to bring the children out of the ghetto. While most of the children were orphans, many of them had living parents. Sendler “talked the mothers out of their children,” convincing the parents that their children would be able to survive only if they left the ghetto.
Sendler recorded all of the names of the children that she rescued on tissue paper, together with their hiding places – convents, orphanages and with individual Polish families. She put the papers into jars and buried the jars in her friend’s garden. Sendler hoped that after the war, she would be able to reunite the children with their families or, at the very least, with the Jewish community.
In 1943, Sendler was captured by the Nazis. Imprisoned, tortured and sentenced to death, she never revealed any information about “her” children. Zegota comrades succeeded in securing her release and she lived out the rest of the war in hiding. Sendler, together with her comrades in the Polish underground, rescued about 2,500 Jewish children.
The story of Irena Sendler would have been lost to history had it not been for a few high school students from Kansas who, together with the LMC and funding from a Jewish education reformer, launched an awareness campaign of Irena’s story.