This theatrical production is the second of two events celebrating Catholic social worker Irena Sendler, who saved 2,500 Jewish children during World War II. Image courtesy of The Irena Sendler Project.

Play to Highlight Holocaust Heroine Irena Sendler

This theatrical production is the second of two events celebrating Catholic social worker Irena Sendler, who saved 2,500 Jewish children during World War II. Image courtesy of The Irena Sendler Project.

Play to Highlight Holocaust Heroine Irena Sendler 

This theatrical production is the second of two events celebrating Irena Sendler, who saved 2,500 Jewish children during World War II.

Life in a Jar: The Irena Sendler Project, a powerful play that brings Holocaust heroine Irena Sendler and her colleagues to life, will make its Western Massachusetts debut at 1:30 p.m. Sunday, March 29, in Veritas Auditorium at Elms College.

Life in a Jar tells the awe-inspiring story of Polish Catholic social worker Irena Sendler and a group of other young Polish women who outfoxed the Nazis during World War II to save the lives of thousands of Jewish children in the Warsaw Ghetto. Despite imprisonment, torture and a death sentence, Sendler refused to divulge any information about her colleagues or her organization -- and she was only saved from execution at the last minute, when her comrades bribed a guard to set her free.

It sounds like fiction, but it’s all true. Sendler’s underground child-smuggling operation got 2,500 children out of the Warsaw Ghetto through sewers, passageways and service trucks. Priests and sympathetic officials faked papers to help the children travel to orphanages and convents outside Warsaw. Although it was damning evidence, Sendler kept a list of each child’s true name -- buried in a jar for safekeeping -- so that the families might reunite after the war.

The play itself has an interesting origin. In 1999, rural Kansas high school teacher Norm Conard assigned a yearlong National History Day project to three students based on what he thought was a typo.

Conard showed Megan Stewart and Elizabeth Cambers, then ninth graders, and then-eleventh grader Sabrina Coons a clipping from a March 1994 issue of News and World Report that referenced lifesaving acts by a woman named Irena Sendler. Conard had not otherwise heard of this woman or this story, so he tasked the students with finding primary and secondary sources throughout the year.

What they uncovered was Sendler’s story of heroism, selflessness and hope. They found that she had received esteemed recognition from Yad Vashem in 1965 and support from the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous in New York City, but that 45 years of communism in Poland had all but buried her story, even in her home country.

For their project, the students wrote a play to bring Sendler’s story to the world. They have performed it for audiences all over North America and in Europe; as of November 2014, it had seen 345 presentations. However, until now it had never been performed in Western Massachusetts.

The students began to search for Sendler’s final resting place and discovered she was still alive -- and still in Warsaw. They began collecting donations at every performance to send to Sendler and other Polish rescuers. Thanks to fundraising and generous donations, they visited Warsaw on multiple occasions to meet with Sendler and some of the children she had saved. They began and maintained a correspondence with her until her death.

“My emotion is being shadowed by the fact that my coworkers have all passed on, and these honors fall to me. I can’t find words to thank you, for my own country and the world to know of the bravery of rescuers,” Sendler wrote to the students before her death in 2008. “Before the day you had written Life in a Jar, the world did not know our story. Your performance and work is continuing the effort I started over 50 years ago. You are my dearly beloved ones.”

Over the years, the students have appeared on C-SPAN, National Public Radio, CBS, CNN and the Today show, and in numerous print media including the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the Ladies Home Journal and Guideposts. A DVD of the play has been placed in over 1,000 schools around the world, along with a classroom study guide.

“The young men and women of Kansas put Irena’s story on the map,” said child survivor Renata Zajdman, a close friend of the project.

Thanks to this worldwide attention, an international Irena Sendler Award was started in 2006, and Sendler was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007. In 2009, the Hallmark Hall of Fame produced The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler for CBS; the world premiere was held in Fort Scott, Kansas, with many of the students from the cast and project present, along with Zajdman and the film’s actors and directors.

Life in a Jar is a powerful presentation for all audiences (parental guidance recommended), a dynamic program touching on the Holocaust, ethics, education, respect and unsung heroes. It’s a presentation of hope, not despair.

Tickets are $8 in advance, $12 at the door ($10 at the door for seniors); students are free with ID. The play will be immediately followed by a reception at the Polish Center of Discovery and Learning at 33 South St. in Chicopee.

This celebration of Irena Sendler’s life and work is the second event in a series of two presented by Elms College; Women’s Philanthropy, a division of the Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts; the Kosciuszko Foundation, New England Chapter; the Polish Center of Discovery and Learning; and a generous grant from the Jewish Endowment Foundation of Western Massachusetts’ Harold Grinspoon & Diane Troderman Hatikvah Holocaust Education Fund.

Last month, in the first part of the series, Veritas Auditorium at Elms College hosted a free screening of the documentary Irena Sendler: In the Name of Their Mothers, with filmmaker Mary Skinner on hand to answer audience questions after the film.

 

What:Western Massachusetts premiere of Life in a Jar, a play about Polish Holocaust heroine Irena Sendler.
Where:Veritas Auditorium, Elms College, 291 Springfield St., Chicopee MA.
When:1:30-3 p.m. Sunday, March 29.
Admission:$8 in advance, $12 at the door ($10 at the door for senior citizens). Students are free with ID.
Tickets:

http://lifeinajar.brownpapertickets.com. Online purchase include a small service fee per ticket.

To buy tickets without the fee, you can purchase them in person weekdays at the Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts, located in the Springfield Jewish Community Center at 1160 Dickinson St. in Springfield.

Tickets are also available at the Elms College Social Work Department office on the third floor of Berchmans Hall at 291 Springfield St. in Chicopee.

Reception:Immediately following the play, at the Polish Center of Discovery and Learning at 33 South St. in Chicopee.
Information:Contact Nancy Sullivan, Elms College Department of Social Work, at 413-265-2323; or Amy Nee, Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts, at 413-384-0376. For more details, visit www.elms.edu/irenasendler.