Mayer’s book breathes life into Holocaust history

MIDDLEBURY — Irena Sendler has become a national hero in Poland, and deservedly so. During World War II, she risked her life to rescue 2,500 Jewish children from the Warsaw ghetto, often knocking on the doors of Jewish homes and convincing parents to entrust her with their children.
But Sendler lived in anonymity and poverty for decades following the war. Under the Polish communist regime, which fell in 1990, an enemy of fascism was also an enemy of communism, so heroes of the Holocaust deserved no special recognition. Because of this, Sendler’s story received only passing mentions in historical accounts worldwide.
But one night in 2002, Jack Mayer, a Middlebury pediatrician and writer, saw an issue of “The Ladies’ Home Journal” on his desk mysteriously opened to an article about four high school girls from Uniontown, Kan., who had researched Sendler’s story and were turning it into a play.
Their play, “Life in a Jar,” was gradually bringing the story out of obscurity. Mayer wanted to learn more about both these girls from rural Kansas — who had no historical expertise or direct connection to the Holocaust — and about Sendler herself.
He contacted the girls’ high school, and in 2004 he began writing a book that told the Polish and Kansas stories together.
Mayer this month published the result, “Life in a Jar: The Irena Sendler Project,” and the first 1,500 copies arrived in Middlebury last week. While the book is historically accurate, he decided to write it as a novel so that he could use imagined dialogue and give some of the Polish characters more life.
“One of the things that I found compelling about this was how the two stories interweave,” he said. “What intrigued me is that this is not only a story of a Holocaust rescuer, but it’s also a story that transcends generations, and makes something a living history, not just something you read about.”
In the first section of the book, Mayer tells the story of the Kansas girls who began researching Sendler’s life as part of a National History Day Project in 1999.
One of the students, Liz, read a brief story about Irena Sendler in a magazine, and was encouraged by a teacher to do more research.
Since her mother suffered from drug addiction, Liz had lived with her grandfather since she was five. At the encouragement of a teacher, she and three other girls became dedicated to uncovering more information about Sendler, and the project often provided them with a needed sense of purpose.
The second section of Mayer’s book tells the story of Sendler’s heroism in Poland, and in the third section, Mayer describes the first production of the play in Kansas, and its subsequent success in the United States. Because of the successes of their play, the girls eventually met Sendler.
“A very tender and loving relationship developed between these girls and this woman,” said Mayer. “You realize how there are fibers in history that bind us together and come out in the most interesting ways.”
When the Kansas girls first met Irena Sendler she was in her 90s and living alone with diabetes.
“They ended up rescuing the rescuer,” said Mayer. “Here was this woman who was forgotten for 60 years, and they brought her compelling story of decency and courage to historical light.”
Mayer hopes his novel will inspire other young people to emulate the Kansas students and actively engage with history.
“These girls are ordinary girls when you meet them,” he said “They’re not merit scholars. They come from a very rural public high school in Southeast Kansas … and yet look what they were able to do.”
Following the girls’ play, Sendler’s story gained more notoriety. In 2003, Hallmark released a documentary film about Sendler, and they consulted with the Kansas girls about their research.
Beyond helping to give Sendler the recognition she disserved — Sendler was nominated for a Nobel Prize in 2007 — the girls’ play also helped to influence how Poland approached the memory of the Holocaust.
In the book, Mayer tells the story of how an elderly Polish recipient of Israel’s Yad Vashem medal for non-Jews who risked their lives during the Holocaust finally felt free to display his medal in public after seeing a production of the play.
He had kept the medal in his basement for decades out of fear of reprisal from the communist regime.
“(The girls) started out being students of history, and they ended up making history and changing the way people in Poland think about the Holocaust,” Mayer said.
Mayer also hopes his book will serve to further inform people about the Holocaust and the Warsaw ghetto.
“It’s important for us to immunize the world against genocide, because we clearly have not learned the lesson of World War II,” he said. “This is about tolerance and the acceptance of diversity.”
Mayer will donate 60 percent of profits from the book to the “Irena Sendler/Life in a Jar Foundation” in order to encourage other young adults to emulate the Kansas girls.
Norm Conrad, the teacher who originally encouraged the Kansas girls to pursue their project, runs the foundation, which funds project-based learning designed to educate people about history’s unsung heroes.
Copies of Mayer’s book are now available for $15 at the Vermont Book Store; at Mayer’s office, Rainbow Pediatrics; or through his website wwww.longtrailpress.com.
Mayer recently sent copies of the book to a historian in Poland, and he’s hoping to get it translated into Polish.
Finally, Mayer admits at the end of his book that he has motivation in publishing his novel that extends beyond the immediate story. He has no idea who put the copy of “The Ladies’ Home Journal” on his desk in Rainbow Pediatrics open to the story about the Kansas girls.
“I don’t keep “The Ladies’ Home Journal” in my waiting room, and I’ve asked everybody about it,” he said. “And so I ask in the book, ‘Who are you? Fess up!’”
Reporter George Altshuler is at [email protected].

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