Schoolgirls take history project to the international stage

Their 1999 research on an unsung hero who sheltered Jewish children during the Holocaust has become a play that's been performed abroad – and brought recognition to a Polish woman.

charlie riedel/ap
Megan Felt (r.) plays the role of Irena Sendler in 'Life in a Jar,' in Fort Scott, Kan. The play celebrates the life of Sendler, who helped rescue 2,500 Jewish children during the Holocaust.

An international play touting an unsung hero came about after three teenagers got a hold of a magazine clip with a list of obscure Holocaust heroes.

One person on it, Irena Sendler, helped rescue 2,500 children from the Warsaw ghetto during the Holocaust more than 60 years ago, the clip said.

"We thought maybe it was a typo," said Megan Felt, who was a high school freshman in 1999 along with Sabrina Murphy and Elizabeth Cambers Hutton. "Even Oskar Schindler saved only about 1,000 Jews, and he was really well known."

The girls dug up what they could and wrote a short play about her for a history project. They told how Ms. Sendler, a Catholic, sneaked into the Warsaw ghetto at great risk to herself, took children from Jewish families, smuggled them out, and placed them with Catholic families, convents, or orphanages.

As she worked, Sendler wrote down the name of each child and some family history and stuffed the information into milk jars she buried in a neighbor's yard. She hoped that those names would be unearthed and used to piece families back together when the killing ended.

The girls called their play "Life in a Jar." The count is now up to about 230 performances across the US, Canada, and Poland. The young women, most of whom did not have passports and did not know any Jewish people when they started the project, visited Sendler three times in Warsaw, met diplomats and survivors, and saw Auschwitz and Treblinka.

They were dubbed the "Rescuers of the Rescuer" because, before their attention, Sendler was not well known in Poland.

Last year, Sendler was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. She lost to the team of Al Gore and the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Sendler was recognized by Israel in 1965 for rescuing Jewish children. The Jewish Foundation for the Righteous has been sending Sendler money and promoting her heroism since 1986, said Stanlee Stahl, executive vice president of the New York-based foundation.

But perhaps it took the unexpected collection of these teenagers from a rural area that didn't even have a synagogue to ignite broader interest in Sendler.

"It was a vehicle for the public at large to embrace the story," said Jean Zeldin of the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education in Overland Park, Kan.

The Lowell Milken Center, named for the foundation, provided the seed money for the Midwest Center. It's dedicated to helping students develop projects on unsung heroes.

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