WARSAW, Poland (JTA) – A Kansas teacher who with his students brought the story of Holocaust hero Irena Sendler to light was honored in Poland.
Norman Conard was presented with the 2018 Irena Sendler Memorial Award in Warsaw’s Royal Castle on Monday by the Polish minister of culture, Piotr Gliński, and Tad Taube, the founder of the Taube Philanthropies foundation based in San Francisco. Conard is the first American to receive the award since its launch in 2008.
Poland has designated 2018 the Year of Irena Sendler to mark the 10th anniversary of her death at 98.
Sendler, a Polish social worker, saved hundreds of Jewish children during the Nazi occupation, smuggling them out of the Warsaw Ghetto and placing them in adoptive Christian families, monasteries and orphanages. Following World War II, she lived in oblivion until Conard’s students discovered her story while they were working on a history project on unsung heroes.
In fall 1999, Conard encouraged his students from Uniontown, Kansas, a town of 247, to take a closer look at Sendler’s work and present their project in a competition organized for National History Day.
The students presented their work in the form of a dramatic play called “Life in a Jar.” Sendler and her helpers had buried the names of the children she hid in jars in the hopes that one day they would be reunited with their parents, though most of the parents were murdered by the Nazis.
The play has since been performed 375 times around the world. Movies about Sendler’s life also have been made.
The award in her name honors Poles who contribute to the strengthening of Polish-Jewish relations and the preservation of the Polish-Jewish heritage and memory of the Holocaust.
“It is a great honor to receive an award from the Taube Philanthropies Foundation and the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage,” Conard said. “Irena Sendler’s life is an example of heroism and courage. Getting to know such an extraordinary person and its history changed my life.”
Conard now works as executive director of the Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes in Fort Scott, Kansas.