Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Book Review- Life in a Jar: the Irena Sendler Project

I first heard about Irena Sendler about a year ago when I went to an education conference in Indianapolis, Indiana.  The Life in a Jar organization was one of the sponsors, and I got a bookmark talking about the book.  Intrigued, I did a little bit of research online and eventually bought the book.  I started reading the book in January, but I have this awful habit of starting books and not finishing them right away (it's terrible, I know).  As a way to take a mental break from school, I've started reading for pleasure again, and I found this book on my bookshelf while home for Thanksgiving and decided to bring it back to school in the hope of finishing it.  I finished it in about two days.

Irena Sendler was a Polish Catholic who lived in Warsaw on the outbreak of World War II.  She worked as a social worker.  When she saw the atrocities happening to the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto, she decided to step up and do something about it.  With the help of a secret organization called ZEGOTA, she and other Poles fought back and smuggled children out of the Warsaw Ghetto and brought them to safety.  The estimated numbers are:
-500 placed in monasteries
-200 placed with a certain priest who took care of them
-500 placed with the Polish Council for Care
-100 teens sent into the forest to join the partisan movement
-1,200 placed with foster families

These are all estimated numbers, there's no way to be sure just how many Irena and her friends saved.  This book chronicles not only Irena Sendler but how her story came to light.  In a small, poor high school in Kansas, three girls came across a brief blurb about Irena while researching a prospective project for the National History Day competition.  They decided to write a short play about Irena, and the project snow balled from there.  The girls have since performed the play all across the nation, and others have performed the play all across the world.  Irena's story is known becoming more well known.

This book was incredibly moving and amazing to read.  As I read, I marked so many things I wanted to remember to share.  As the three girls traveled around, they met a lot of Holocaust survivors.  Many of these survivors said, "Perhaps you won't tell my story, but you must tell Irena's story.  The world must never forget."  This reminds me a lot of when I read Searching for Schindler.  This book was written after Schindler's List and talked about how Thomas Keneally, the author, first heard about Oskar Schindler and went about researching the book.  Those survivors, like Irena's wanted to make sure the world knew about the story so it would be preserved in the years to come.  You see, Poles, like other European nations ravaged by the Nazis in World War II, do not want to remember what happened during World War II.  They haven't forgotten what happened, but they ignore the past.  This was something I had the opportunity to talk to my neighbors about.  They grew up in Germany and moved to America about twenty years ago.  They said that growing up, the textbooks didn't talk about the Holocaust or anything.  I can understand that the wounds were still raw, but it broke my heart to hear that.  Those who lost someone in the Holocaust certainly didn't forget.  While on their first of three trips to Poland, the girls went to Treblinka, the extermination camp all the Jews in Warsaw Ghetto went to.  It wasn't a concentration camp, its only purpose was to kill people.  The girls went to Treblinka with the descendants of some inhabitants of Warsaw Ghetto.  When they went to the camp, it was a moving moment, "their family's ashes were here, somewhere" as the author put it.  It's a startling realization that there, somewhere, were the remains of someone in your family, and you'll never know where, and they'll never have a proper grave.

Because of her work in the resistance movement, Irena was one of the most wanted people by the Gestapo.  She was arrested, but the resistance movement bribed a guard to release her, and she barely escaped with her life.  Unfortunately, that guard was later executed.  Because she was wanted so badly, Irena couldn't even attend her own mother's funeral (she died during the war) since she knew the Gestapo would be there, and they were.

Years later, the three Kansas girls had the opportunity to meet Irena and to discover what a wonderful and kind woman she was.  She bought each girl a necklace with a heart on it, saying, "I give to each of you a piece of my heart."  In her old age, Irena was more concerned with "her Kansas girls" than anything else.  When the mother of one of the girls was diagnosed with cancer, her main concern was the other, the girl and how the family was holding up. She saw the girls, their families and their teacher, Norman, as a part of her family.  Irena's son died on the same day the girls first read about her back in Kansas (talk about fate), and she said to Norman, "You've taken the place of my son."  Any money the girls sent to help Irena pay for postage to write to them, or just to pay for general living expenses, Irena automatically donated to a charity, she didn't want any of their money and thought it could go to much better use.

After her story got out, Irena was showered with all sorts of awards.  She was awarded the Order of the White Eagle, the highest award in Poland.  Even Pope John Paul II wrote her a letter commending her for her work during the war.

Sadly, Irena passed away in 2008, she was 98 years old.  Just three weeks before, her Kansas girls had visited her.  The last thing she said to them was, "You have changed my country, you have changed your country, and you are changing the world."  This book was amazing and so moving.  I highly recommend it.  It is a very easy read, and you'll find yourself unable to put it down.

If you want to know more about Irena Sendler, click here.  To learn more about the Life in a Jar Project, click here.

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