Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Life In a Jar - The Irenz Sendler Project by Jack Mayer

Life in a Jar: The Irena Sendler Project by Jack Mayer

Over the past 15 years a great deal has been written about Irena Sendler, a non-Jewish Polish woman who managed to smuggle over 2500 children out of the Warsaw Ghetto and secure them in safe hiding places until the end of the war. Jack Mayer's book, Life in a Jar: The Irena Sendler Project takes a new approach to the story as he examines the process that brought the incident to life.

Irena Sendler was a young Polish social worker in Warsaw when the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939. She joined the Zagota underground whose primary mission involved helping Jews escape from the Nazis. As a social worker Sendler was able to obtain papers that allowed her to enter the Warsaw ghetto where close to a half a million Jews were trapped without the bare essentials for survival.

Sendler brought food and medicine into the ghetto but she quickly realized that she could save more lives if she concentrated on bringing Jews OUT of the ghetto -- specifically, children. Over the course of a year Sendler and her Zagota comrades smuggled more than 2500 children from the ghetto -- sedating the youngest children and smuggling them out in toolboxes and bags while she led the older children out through the sewers that ran under Warsaw and via other underground tunnels. Sendler obtained false papers for some of the children who could then be passed off as Christians and found hiding places for other children in convents, orphanages and with sympathetic Polish families. Sendler recorded the names and hiding places of each child on pieces of tissue paper. She then stuffed these pieces of paper into glass jars and then buried them in her yard, hoping that, someday, the children could be identified and reunited with their community.

After the war Sendler was one of the first Righteous Among the Nations honored by the Israeli Holocaust Museum Yad Vashem but her story was quickly forgotten and she lived quietly in Warsaw, unrecognized by the Polish Communist government which didn't want to relate to Holocaust-era rescuers. In 1999 a group of non-Jewish schoolgirls from Uniontown Kansas identified Sendler and created a school assignment about her activities during the war. It's here that Mayer's book veers from the better-known accounts of the Irena Sendler Project because, whereas other written information has always focused on Sendler's activities, Mayer focuses on the creation and execution of the project itself.

The students, Elizabeth Cambers, Megan Stewart, Jessica Shelton and Sabrina Coons were students in a small, poor rural school. Their high school social studies teacher assigned them to research an aspect of the Holocaust. During their initial research they found a one-line piece of information about Sendler on a website and set out to investigate. For many months the girls came up against stone walls because in 1999 there was almost no information available about Sendler's activities. But surprisingly, when they tried to write to Sendler, she answered -- in the year 2000 the 90-something-year-old Sendler was still living in Warsaw and was enchanted with the girls' work. She wrote "“To my dear and beloved girls very close to my heart. I am curious if you are an exception or more young people in your country are interested in the Holocaust. I think that your work is unique and worth disseminating.”

The students wrote up the history project and then expanded it into a play called "Life in a Jar." The play was performed throughout the nation and, ultimately, in Poland. Educational visionary Lowell Milken helped the girls travel to Poland where they visited Sendler and met some of the children that she had saved.  Milken was so taken by the project that he initiated a Center with Norman Conrad, the social studies teacher who had originally inspired the girls to embark on their research. Today the Lowell Milken Center highlights the stories of "unsung heroes" worldwide as they are researched and presented by American schoolchildren. 

Mayer's book goes beyond the basics of the story of Sendler's activities and the research that identified her to focus on the respect and understanding that Sendler modeled. He also focuses on the tenaciousness of the girls, who had no personal interest in the incident, but overcame all obstacles to expose a story that has moved thousands of people throughout the world and inspired others to create similar projects.

Image of Jack Mayer

Jack Mayer, MD, MPH
Jack Mayer began practicing pediatrics in 1976 in Enosburg Falls, Vermont, a small town in eastern Franklin County on the Canadian border. His was the first pediatric practice in that half of the county. He was a doctor there for ten years, often bartering medical care for eggs, firewood, and knitted afghans. From 1987 - 1991 he was a National Cancer Institute Epidemiology Fellow at Columbia University School of Public Health in New York City, researching pediatric environmental toxicology and the molecular biology of cancer. Most of his scientific writing was done during those four years. He was also a member of Columbia's General Pediatric Group Practice.

Dr. Mayer returned to Vermont in 1991 and established Rainbow Pediatrics in Middlebury, where he continues to practice primary care pediatrics. He is an Instructor in Pediatrics at the University of Vermont

This is an important book all with an interest in the period need to read.  I strongly urge all libraries acquire it.

Mel u

1 comment:

James Chester said...

That's quite a story. Thank you for posting this.