CHICOPEE – “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 on Sunday, March 29 at 1:30 p.m. in Veritas Auditorium at Elms College. A reception will immediately follow the play, at the Polish Center of Discovery and Learning at 33 South St. in Chicopee.
“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.
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 U.S. 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, but that 45 years of communism in Poland had all but buried her story.
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.
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.
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.
Admission to “Life in a Jar”: $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 includes 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 Mass., in the Springfield Jewish Community Center, 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. For more information, contact Nancy Sullivan, Elms College Department of Social Work, (413) 265-2323; or Amy Nee, Jewish Federation of Western Mass., (413) 384-0376. For more details, visit www.elms.edu/irenasendler.