A play chronicling the story of a Polish Catholic woman who risked her life to save 2,500 Jewish children during World War II is coming to Arizona for the first time.
“Life in a Jar: The Irena Sendler Project,” will be performed before a general audience on Jan. 12, and to 800 students from Chandler high schools on Jan. 13 at the Chandler Center for the Arts. The production is sponsored by the East Valley Jewish Community Center (EVJCC), the Greater Phoenix Jewish Film Festival and the City of Chandler.
Adrian Bendick, senior programming coordinator for the EVJCC and chair of the Films in the Schools program at the Greater Phoenix Jewish Film Festival, was key to bringing the play to the East Valley. Bendick, who has screened the TV movie version of the story, “The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler,” to students around the state, presented her idea for the play to Rabbi Michael Beyo, CEO of the EVJCC.
“Rabbi Beyo is very receptive to new ideas. I went to him and told him I wanted to bring in this play about Irena Sendler,” Bendick said. “Before I could continue he said, ‘Let’s do it.’ He was just all for it.”
The play focuses on Sendler, a social worker who smuggled infants and children out of the Warsaw Ghetto and placed them in the homes of Polish families or hid them in convents and orphanages. The play takes its name from the lists Sendler and her colleagues made of each child’s real name, which were then placed in jars and buried in a garden. The jars were later dug up so Sendler and her network could find the children to tell them of their real identities.
A member of Zegota, the Polish Council to Aid Jews, Sendler was eventually captured by the Nazis, beaten and sentenced to death. Her life was spared when members of Zegota bribed a Nazi guard, allowing Sendler to escape.
In 1965, Yad Vashem granted Sendler the title of Righteous Among the Nations. However, Sendler’s story remained mostly hidden behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War.
Then something almost improbable happened. In 1999, as part of a history assignment, four high school girls from Uniontown, Kansas, discovered Sendler’s story and wrote a play about it. The story was picked up by the media, and since then the play has been performed hundreds of times throughout the nation by some of the original students, as well as a rotating cast. “Life in a Jar: The Irena Sendler Project” eventually spawned a book and the made-for-television movie. The students traveled to Poland and met Sendler before her death in 2008.
“Irena Sendler had a wonderful story to tell, but it was these schoolchildren from Kansas who got to tell it for her,” said Bob Segelbaum, executive director of the Greater Phoenix Jewish Film Festival, which often screens the film version of Sendler’s story. “We are extremely happy to present it here in Chandler and recognize these Kansans for their efforts.”
The play is also part of the Chandler’s Celebration of Unity, a series of events the city holds in January to honor its community’s heritage and diversity, as well as the spirit, ideals, life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.
“It’s bringing the community together because this is not strictly a Jewish story. I’ve had a lot of feedback from the Christian community about wanting to get tickets,” Bendick said. “With all that is going on right now, this play is so important to show the community that we should all care about each other.”
Janet Perez is a freelance writer based in Phoenix.
What: “Life In A Jar: The Irena Sendler Project”
Who: East Valley JCC, Greater Phoenix Jewish Film Festival, City of Chandler
When: 6:30-8 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 12
Where: Chandler Center for the Arts, 250 N. Arizona Ave., Chandler
Cost: $10 general admission; $5 student (up to 25 years old)
Tickets: firstname.lastname@example.org or 480-897-0588