Elzbieta Ficowska was just five months old when she was smuggled out of the Warsaw Ghetto in a carpenter’s box.
She was placed with a Polish family on the “Aryan” side of the wall, and the young woman who carried her out of the Ghetto added tiny little Elzbieta’s name, parents’ names and new address to a piece of tissue paper, on which were written the details of other children she had smuggled out.
The same young woman buried the jar under an apple tree in the backyard of a friend’s home.
That young woman was 29-year-old Irena Sendler, a Polish Catholic social worker who bravely saved 2500 Jewish infants, children, and teenagers from disease and death at the hands of the German Nazis.
The jar was unearthed soon after the Nazi regime’s defeat, but the heroic story of Irena and her fellow rescuers remained buried, for almost 60 more years.
Life In a Jar
It was 1999 when four students at rural Uniontown High School in Kansas began researching possible projects for the National History Day competition. The students were intrigued by a sentence their teacher, Norman Conrad, showed them in an article from US News and World Report, which stated simply, “Irena Sendler saved 2500 children from the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942–43.”
Both teacher and students were convinced that it must have been a typing error. How could one person save 2500 children from the walled and heavily guarded Ghetto? They assumed that the article had meant to say 250.
It was a question that came up early on in the students’ research, as they began to realise there had been no error in the original article—Irena had indeed saved 2500 children from death at the hands of the Nazis.
The students, who by that time had written a ten-minute play, Life in a Jar, depicting Irena’s rescue efforts, decided to write to Irena, who was living with relatives in a tiny apartment in Warsaw. They mentioned their play, which had won the state history contest and would be performed at the National History Day competition. They asked for more details about her life, and they asked: where did she find the courage?
“My parents taught me,” Irena wrote back, “that if a man is drowning, it is irrelevant what is his religion or nationality. One must help him”