An article in the April 2008 Guideposts magazine educated me. Written by Megan Felt, from Farlington, Kansas, she tells the story of entering National History Day, a competition of more than half a million students who vie to create a compelling presentation of an historical topic. She and her friends wanted to research something about the Holocaust because it was so different from their small farming town.
A teacher of theirs, Norm Conard, helped them find Irena, an actual person to research. They wrote a one-act play.
Irena Sendlerowa was a Polish social worker who rescued more than 2,500 Jewish children to safety from the Warsaw Ghetto. To preserve their names, she wrote them on sheets of paper and buried them in jars in her garden. 2,500 was a thousand more than Oskar Schindler had saved.
Irena was unknown for a reason. The girls could find almost nothing about her. They searched through books, newspapers, the Internet and even went to a Holocaust education center in the Midwest. Finally, one of their Internet inquiries responded with the suggestion that the young people contact Irena in Poland directly. She was 90.
They wrote her a letter, enclosed their play and sent her three dollars for return postage. Weeks went by. The girls needed her to write back. Finally, a letter arrived—in Polish! Their teacher arranged for a translator.
“To my dear and beloved girls, very close to my heart,” it began. She told them the whole story. How she’d talked her way into the ghetto and smuggled babies out. She told them of her fear. How she was arrested by the Gestapo in 1943. How they’d fractured her legs and feet during an interrogation. Someone bribed the guards to let her go. How she retrieved the names from her garden, and tried to reunite the children with their parents after the war. Irena insisted she was no hero. “I did what anyone would have done.” (She donated the three dollars.)
The girls did their play, made it to the finals, and didn’t win, but they did get some coverage in a local Kansas newspaper. Soon they were invited to perform their play in all sorts of surprising places. After one such performance, a Jewish businessman called, “Would you like to go to Warsaw to meet Irena? I’ll pay your way if you come back and talk to my businessman’s association about what you find.”
Can you say Miracle?
They went. Three farm girls from Kansas and one mom went to Warsaw in 2001. The Polish press mobbed them. They met their hero. Their Unsung Hero. It changed their lives.
Before she died, my mother worked tirelessly for the cause of AIDS. She won a DIFFA Unsung Hero Award. The program she and her team developed has been used as a prototype for county response to AIDS for many years.
Maybe heroes aren’t extraordinary people at all? Maybe heroes are those who “do what anyone would do?” My mom did. And according to Irena, so did she.
P. S. If you want to see a DVD of the play about Irena, Life In A Jar, go to http://www.irenasendler.org/ to order it.