Norman Conard’s students at Uniontown High School in rural Kansas grew up thousands of miles and generations away from Nazi-occupied Poland. So it might seem hard for them to relate to Irena Sendler, a woman who rescued Jews during World War II. But when four of his students traveled to Poland this summer to meet 91-year-old Sendler, they felt like they were visiting an old friend.
In many ways they were. The students—Elizabeth Cambers, 16; Sabrina Coons, 17; Megan Stewart, 15; and Janice Underwood, 15—had spent about two years researching, writing, and performing a play about Sendler’s life, their entry in the 2000 National History Day Contest. Though they never dreamed the project would take them all the way to Warsaw, it was apparent from the beginning that Sendler’s story was no dry tale from the pages of a history book.
Each year, about 700,000 students nationwide in grades 6 through 12 research projects for the history contest. Relying heavily on primary sources, they channel the information they unearth into performances, exhibits, and films, which they present at district and state competitions. The top 2,000 or so go on to compete at the national finals.
In the fall of 1999, the Uniontown students were searching for a topic for the competition when they stumbled across Sendler’s name in an old U.S. News & World Report article about non-Jews who had risked their lives to save people during the Holocaust. They couldn’t believe what they read—Sendler, then a social worker in Warsaw, had rescued 2,500 Jewish children. Conard assumed it was a typo and advised them to contact the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous in New York City to learn more. When the organization confirmed the figure, the girls knew they had found their subject.
During World War II, Sendler sneaked nearly 400 Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto and found non-Jewish families to adopt them. She buried detailed notes about their true identities in jars, and after the war, dug them up in an effort to return the children to the families that had survived the Holocaust. She was jailed and beaten by the Nazis in 1943, but colleagues bribed a guard to free her, and she worked with Zegota, an underground anti-Nazi organization, to save 2,100 more lives.
The students wrote a 10-minute play about Sendler called “Life in a Jar,” based on information they gathered at the Midwest Center for Holocaust Studies in Overland Park, Kansas, and a heartfelt correspondence they struck up with Sendler after obtaining her address from the Jewish foundation. (They found two Polish-speakers at a local university to translate for them.) The five- character play shows several scenes from Sendler’s life, including a conversation with her best friend, Maria, about working for the underground and a scene in which Sendler convinces a Jewish mother to give up her children.
The girls won the 2000 Kansas state National History Day competition, then competed in, but did not place at, the national event. However, their journey wasn’t over.
They continued to perform the play in nearby communities because, says Elizabeth, “we wanted to show people that there are good people out there, and there were people who did good things during the Holocaust.” In January, an American history teacher named John Shuchart saw the play at Westridge Middle School in Shawnee Mission, Kansas. Shuchart, who is Jewish, was so moved that he took it upon himself to raise $6,500 to send the students, their parents, plus Conard and his wife to Poland so they could meet Sendler. Says Shuchart, “If the key to preventing the Holocaust is education, then these girls are doing the best job that anyone could do.”
So this summer, the students, only one of whom had traveled outside the United States before, found themselves in Warsaw for a week. Sendler arranged a detailed itinerary for the girls, including visits to the prison where she was tortured, a courtyard where the resistance met, and the garden where she buried her jars. The students visited a Jewish cemetery, perused historical documents at the Jewish Historical Institute, and walked solemnly through the remains of the Auschwitz concentration camp. They performed the play twice in Poland, once for a group of 27 survivors and rescuers at the only synagogue in Warsaw that the Nazis didn’t destroy, and once at the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising monument. Throughout, the girls were treated like celebrities: The Polish press covered their activities, and a Polish filmmaker who is working on a documentary about their experience followed them around.
Naturally, the emotional highlight of the trip was the first time they met Sendler. After wiping away tears, they talked about “everything,” recalls Conard. Sendler, who keeps a photo of the girls next to her bed, had handwritten 10 pages of thoughts that she wanted to share.
Janice was surprised by Sendler. She says, though Sendler “looks old” from a distance, up close, the four-foot-five-inch woman emits a radiance and a liveliness that the girls were not expecting. “It’s like you’re talking to someone your own age,” she says. Moreover, Janice observes, “she doesn’t even realize she’s a hero.” Janice says the group was particularly inspired by Sendler’s advice to them: “If you see someone drowning, you go in the water after them—whether you can swim or not.”
Janice says that before she started working on the project, she’d thought the Holocaust “wasn’t a big deal.” Now, she says, she realizes “how cruel the Nazis were.” And she’s concerned that other young people don’t know enough about what happened during World War II. “If people don’t hear these stories, evil [will] come back again,” she says. Inspired by the trip, the girls are adding new scenes to the play and planning more performances.
For Conard, the trip validated a teaching philosophy he has long espoused: “Never put a limit on what students can do,” he says.