JOPLIN, Mo. —
“Life in a Jar: The Irena Sendler Project,” a play based on the true story of one woman’s work to save thousands of children from the Holocaust, will be performed Friday at Joplin South Middle School.
Megan Felt, a founder of the Irena Sendler Project and the actress who will portray the title character, said the play depicts the experiences of Sendler, who worked as a non-Jewish Polish social worker in the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II and the era of the Holocaust.
“It’s always been about her story and bringing her story of hope, of courage, of valor, of good triumphing over evil,” she said. “We hope that people can walk away knowing that they, too, as an individual can make a difference in this world.”
Sendler spent the late 1930s and early ’40s persuading Jewish parents to give up their children so they would not meet the fate of dying in the ghetto or in concentration camps. She and her network created false documents, took children past Nazi guards, and had them adopted by Polish families or hid them in convents or orphanages.
The play’s title comes from Sendler’s resolve to bury the children’s real names in jars in a garden, with the hope of one day digging the jars up to tell the children of their true identities. It is estimated that Sendler saved the lives of more than 2,500 children during her lifetime.
Sendler’s story was uncovered in 1999, when three Southeast Kansas high school students, including Felt, researched her life for a yearlong National History Day project. These students eventually wrote “Life in a Jar,” which has been performed more than 315 times throughout the United States, based on their research and project.
“The message says, quite simply, that one person can change the world, and one person can make a difference,” said Norm Conard, the students’ former teacher and now director of the Life in a Jar Foundation. “People who come to see the play, I think, are going to be delighted, thrilled, inspired and walk away with the idea that one person can make a huge difference in the world.”
The students eventually tracked down Sendler, who was living in Warsaw, and had the opportunity of traveling to Poland to meet her for the first time in 2001. They also met Elzbieta Ficowska, who was rescued by Sendler at the age of 5 months after being carried out of her family’s home in a carpenter’s box, and later returned to Poland to interview others connected to Sendler and her story.
Before her death in May 2008, Sendler exchanged dozens of letters with the students, thanking them for their efforts to tell her story and collect donations at their performances to be given to Polish rescuers.
“I can’t find the words to thank you, for my own country and the world to know of the bravery of rescuers,” she wrote in one letter, an excerpt of which is posted on the Life in a Jar website. “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.”
Felt said the play — which features five actors portraying nine characters — is based on the initial research conducted by her National History Day team, along with subsequent interviews with Sendler herself and some of the children she rescued.
It is scheduled to run about one hour and 15 minutes, and includes a period in which Felt and other cast members share their own experiences with Sendler and take questions from the audience.
The performance is sponsored locally by South Middle School Parents and Advocates for Gifted Education and Bright Futures Joplin.
Ivan Obert, who teaches gifted education at South, said Felt spoke a few months ago to his students, who compete each year in National History Day.
“I wanted to show them that even though their National History Day project may not seem like a huge thing, you never can tell what could come out of this,” he said.
“LIFE IN A JAR: The Irena Sendler Project” will begin at 7 p.m. Friday at Joplin South Middle School, 900 E. 50th St. Admission is free; donations will be accepted at the door.