As the scissors snipped and a purple ribbon gently floated to the ground, students, faculty and even officials from Poland witnessed the grand opening of The Righteous Among The Nations, the newest exhibit in Hale Library, on Monday. The event commemorated the 40th anniversary of the Dow Center for Multicultural and Community Studies.
“This is an international traveling exhibit, here throughout the month of February on the second floor of Hale library,” said Darchelle Martin, Hale Library events coordinator. “This was done through a sponsorship from the College of Education, the School of Leadership Studies and K-State Libraries.”
The Righteous Among The Nations is a gallery of photos, maps and information describing the Polish citizens who risked their lives during the Holocaust to save and assist Jews. A path on the second floor of Hale Library allows visitors to journey through the years and meet the faces of the volunteers whom the Israeli government later named Righteous Among the Nations.
“Poland has, by far, the most citizens with this title,” said Debbie Mercer, dean of the College of Education. “This exhibit highlights those individuals.”
Distinguished guests attended the ribbon cutting ceremony and gave remarks. Provost April Mason gave a short speech and introduced Paulina Kapuscinska, Consul General of the Republic of Poland in Chicago, to the crowd of about 50 people.
“We are deeply honored to have her with us,” Mason said.
Kapuscinksa came to the event to honor the work of the people who produced the exhibit. Kapuscinska presented certificates of recognition to Megan Felt and Sabrina Murphy, who founded the basis of the display when they were high school students in Uniontown, Kan. Along with cofounder Elizabeth Cambers, Felt and Murphy created the website “Life In A Jar, The Irena Sendler Project,” which highlights the life of the most famous of the Righteous Among The Nations, Irena Sendler.
“Megan and Sabrina were students of mine,” said Norman Conard, a Uniontown teacher who was also awarded a certificate of recognition. “They found out about Irena for a project, and when they first found it, I said, ‘I’ve never heard of her.’”
Felt and Murphy began researching Irena Sendler when they were 14 and 16 years old, respectively. Now both out of college, the two travel and spread news of Irena’s work via their website, irenasendler.org.
“We decided as a group that we wanted to learn more about the Holocaust,” Felt said. “We found a box of clippings, and one of them mentioned Irena Sendler saving 2,500 children. I thought it was a typographical error.”
The fact turned out to be true, as Felt and Murphy found out when they began the extensive research that would change their lives.
“When we first found out about Irena, there was no information about her out there,” Murphy, a graduate of the K-State College of Education, said.
Information on Irena was scarce, which alarmed Felt and Murphy.
“We ended up finding one website that confirmed Irena’s actions. From there, it turned into a yearlong project of research,” Murphy said.
That research culminated in a play written by Felt, Murphy and Cambers about Irena Sendler’s life and achievements. The play, “Life In A Jar,” has been performed internationally, and Felt, playing Irena herself, got to perform the show for Holocaust survivors.
“We’ve had over 310 performance of ‘Life In A Jar’ so far,” Felt said. “Irena had become our hero.”
Murphy and Felt got the chance to work with Irena herself. The two of them traveled to Poland several times to meet and speak with her.
“She was so sweet, we knew it was going to be a great connection. She was like a long-lost grandma,” Murphy said. “She couldn’t believe that people knew or cared about the Holocaust. She was so supportive and provided us with all the information we needed.”
Irena Sendler, as well as scores of other citizens in the 1940s, are recognized in the Righteous Among The Nations exhibit. Every word of text in the exhibit is written in English and Polish.
“Until this project, Irena was unknown, even in her own country,” Conard said. “Thanks to this, her story is internationally famous.”
Mason and Mercer also used the event as an opportunity to honor Consul General Kapuscinska, and presented her with a purple K-State scarf in honor of the university’s 150th anniversary.
“I’m so honored to be here in Kansas, in the beautiful city of Manhattan,” Kapuscinska said. “It’s amazing that two students from Kansas were able to rescue this story and share it with the world.”
The Righteous Among The Nations exhibit also features cards on which visitors can write or draw their experience on. The cards will be collected by the exhibit officials who view the impact the exhibit has had on its patrons.
Conard said that he was proud to be at the event and to have taught the students who inspired it.
“This is wonderful, fantastic,” Conard said. “They rescued the rescuer’s story.”