One of the major motivations for the book I wrote with Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn, They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust, was his trip to Poland and his getting to meet Irena Sendler (pictured below) there.
A Nobel Peace Prize nominee, Sendler is credited with helping to save 2,500 Jewish children from the Warsaw ghetto. But not many people -- especially Americans -- had heard of Sendler until some high school students from near Fort Scott, Kan., created a play about her called "Life in a Jar."
When these students began their research and discovered some bare-bones information about Sendler, they simply assumed she was long dead. In fact, Sendler lived well into her 90s and died just a few years ago.
The incredible story of Sendler and the Uniontown High School students who discovered her and then actually got to meet her in Poland is told in a marvelously readable new book by Jack Mayer, a writer and pediatrician who lives in Vermont.
Life in a Jar: The Irena Sendler Project is hard to put down. Mayer has produced a work of what he calls "creative non-fiction." That is to say he draws heavily on his own interviews with Sendler and many of the lead characters in the story -- as well as many historical documents -- but then uses his own imagination to recreate dialogue and scenes that perhaps did not happen exactly that way but well could have.
This can be a tricky business, fiddling with the the tiny details of history. And Mayer is wise to alert the readers to his method in an early "Author's Note" so they can decide for themselves whether he got it right.
Mayer, indeed, is able to create a realistic sense of the desperation experienced by Warsaw's targeted Jews in the Holocaust. It was the nadir and result of what poet W.H. Auden called "a low, dishonest decade." Everyone in Warsaw in World War II, Mayer writes, was a criminal, even the heroes like Sendler because to save lives they had to break ridiculous and immoral laws.
Mayer even manages to describe in compelling detail the lives of some of the high school students who, at the behest of a good teacher, began to discover the vicissitudes of history and the moral giants who in the worst of times have stood against evil. Seeing their eyes open to a world beyond Kansas is inspiring.
In the book that Rabbi Cukierkorn and I wrote about Polish rescuers, we honor the work Sendler did by describing other non-Jewish Poles who -- defying the threat of death -- did the right thing by helping to save Jews.
Our book and Mayer's book both raise the almost-unanswerable question of what each of us might do in similar circumstances. But having models of courageous people like Sendler willing to behave in redemptive ways at least gives us the hope that we might do the same.
By the way, 60 percent of the profits from the sale of Mayer's book go to the Irenda Sendler/Life in a Jar Foundation. So make sure not just that you read it but that any teens in your life get a copy of this book, too.
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WHERE THE DANGER REALLY LIES
Pope Benedict XVI is warning American biishops not to cave in to "radical secularism." Well, there is a fringe element of the population that might be described that way, but the church seems to be in more trouble because of internal errors and bad judgment that it is from external attacks by secularists. It's not the secularists, after all, who have been molesting Catholic school children, and it's not secularist bishops who have been failing to protect such kids.
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P.S.: What looks like it will be an excellent workshop to help churches do better ministry to the poor is scheduled for March 24 in Kansas City. For details, click here.