Irena Sendler and Life in a Jar

Irena Sendler (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Have you heard of this person, Irena Sendler? Never? Neither did I until I came across a facebook sharing by a friend a few days ago. I am not an avid reader and the last time I actually had the patience to finish an entire book was probably a few years back; a book on photography.

So what caught my attention and then subsequently made me glued to (and completed) the book “Life in a Jar” in just a few days?

Firstly, she is an unsung hero and I believe in giving credit where it’s due. Irena saved 2,500 Jewish children and Oskar Schindler saved over 1,000 Jews over the same period, i.e. World World II, at the same place (Poland). Yet everybody knows Schindler’s list but nobody had even heard of Irena Sendler. A web search for Irena Sender in 1999 only yielded one hit.

Secondly, I was very curious how did Irena, a social worker, save 2,500 children from the Warsaw Ghetto? I mean, surely the Nazis were not sleeping, right? Irena smuggled the children, including infants, in ambulances, hearses and even tool boxes. And when she was finally caught, the Nazis interrogated and tortured her. She didn’t relent and yet managed to escape from the Pawiak Prison; a prison where nobody had ever come out alive. There is so much mystery around this woman and curiosity didn’t kill the cat in this case. Instead, it led me to a legacy; a legacy that I feel it’s important to pass on.

Irena Sendler and Nobel Peace Prize 2007

Finally, and perhaps also the compelling reason, I was furious when I read that Irena was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 but she lost. Al Gore won the award that year, with a slideshow on global warming. In what way is Irena less deserving than Al Gore?

Now that I have done some further readings and know a little more about Nobel Peace Prize, I think I can understand why Irena was not awarded the prize – She did not meet the criteria of “being involved in significant activities during the past two years“. Although winning the Nobel Prize would be a recognition, not winning it doesn’t make Irena’s extraordinary heroism any less noble either.

Life in a Jar: A book Review

Life in a Jar

This book is based on a true story of three Uniontown High School students (aged 15, 15 and 17 then) who did a National History Day project in 1999 and how they “discovered” Irena Sendler by chance and more importantly, how their project eventually led to worldwide awareness of this unsung hero’s legacy.

Crisis and heroes go hand-in-hand. But “Life in a Jar” is not your typical story on wartime heroes. Unlike most books where fictional imagined dialogue is added to make the story more exciting (than reality), the author Jack Mayer meticulously researched and interviewed the survivors of the holocaust, the Polish academics, the three students and Irena Sendler herself so that the story is not exaggerated.

The author didn’t go into technicalities of the various rescue missions but instead chose to focus on the emotions of the Jewish, especially the parents who gave up their children to Irena (a stranger to them) and the desperation they were experiencing. Just like a magical telescope that is capable of looking back in time, his description of the scenes were realistic and vivid. I could picture the scenes in my mind and my tears just welled up; not once, not twice but many times.

I particularly like the last part of the book where the three girls finally met Irena in Poland, 2001. Through the various conversations, Irena shared her life, experiences, regrets and philosophy of life and that’s where my admiration for this woman becomes stronger. She seems to me as a very humble person and despite what she had done, she didn’t see herself as a hero and her acts were merely a simple and natural need of the heart. Would anyone with a heart do the same? I am not sure if I have the courage to do what she did. Even when most of these people had already passed away and the war had ended almost 60 years ago, she was still concerned with the well-beings of the 2,500 children she saved, giving credits to everyone (she rattled off a long list of other rescuers and their roles) who had helped in the operation, in one way or another. It takes more than a heart to do things like that.

As if Irena’s life was not dramatic enough, the three students who “discovered” Irena were, too, struggling with their own life stories. Liz’s mother was a prostitute and she abandoned Liz when Liz was only five years old. Liz’s grandparents adopted her and tried their best to bring her up “normally”. But the damage was done and Liz had never been an easy child since. Megan, on the other hand, had a happy family but her mother was diagnosed with cancer when the girls were halfway through the project. As a result, Megan had to take on additional stress, both physically and emotionally. Sabrina was an “overaged” girl who had been roped into the project as the teacher felt that the project team needed somebody older. However, she suffered from inferiority complex as she came from a poor family and she had a “colored” sister. Thus, she believed that she was in this project only because the teacher “pitied” her. Through the emotional conflict of these three girls, the author cleverly led the reader into the emotional world of the Jews, of Irena and of the other rescuers, and see the struggles they had.

The Irena Sendler Project was started in September 1999 as a high school project and it has since mushroomed into worldwide educational enterprise to carry on Irena Sendler’s legacy – to teach tolerance, respect, and understanding of all people. In 1999, there was only one Internet reference to Irena Sendler. Today, a google search on “Irena Sendler” returns more than 700,000 results. Such is the power of these three girls. Although it took almost fourteen years for this project to reach me, an individual in Southeast Asia, it’s better late than never. Now I am doing my small part to pass this legacy on.

“There are two kinds of people in this world, good and bad. It doesn’t matter if they are rich or poor, what religion or race. What matters is if they are good or bad.”

~ Dr. Stanisław Krzyżanowski (Father of Irena Sendler)



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