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Life in a Jar

March 1, 2011


This inspiring Polish woman, who saved Jewish children during the Second World War, was discovered only at the age of 89. Irena Sendlerowa was virtually unknown by 1999, when a group of students in Kansas unearthed her story. After the competition for the National History Day was finished, their Life in a Jar project had taken a life of its own.

She was a social worker with a special permit to enter the Warsaw Ghetto to check for signs of typhus, something the Nazis feared would spread. During her visits Irena realised Jewish children were facing the inevitable – death. Herself a mother, she pleaded the families to hand her over their children, so she could smuggle them out and place with Polish families. Working together with Żegota, the underground organisation of Polish resistance, she managed to save 2,500 children in two years.

Small children were sedated to keep from crying and hidden inside sacks, boxes, body bags or coffins. Older children were taken out in ambulances, pretended to be ill. Some were even smuggled through tunnels and sewage system. They got false documents, but their true identity was kept in jars buried under an apple tree in Irena friend’s backyard.

In 1943 Gestapo arrested and tortured her, but she refused to reveal any names. Sentenced to death, Irena managed to escape, to be left in the woods, unconscious and with broken arms and legs. She kept hiding untill the end of the war, much like the children she saved. Prosecuted again, this time by the communist Polish state authorities for her relations with Żegota, she stil managed to dug up the jars containing the children’s identities and attempted to find the children and return them to their parents.

Irena did not see herself as a heroine, stating “I only did what was normal.” She pointed out all the families asked to cooperate accepted the children, despite the death penalty for helping Jews. In 2007 Irena Sendlerowa was nominated for the Nobel peace prize, but has lost to the Intergovernmental panel on climate change and Al Gore.

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