ST. ALBANS — Vermont pediatrician and author Jack Mayer believes that in order to prevent genocide young people must be taught the history of the most gruesome genocide in modern memory – the Nazi Holocaust.
Mayer, who from the mid-1970s until 1987 practiced in Enosburgh, returned to Franklin County Wednesday to talk about his book, “Life in a Jar: The Irena Sendler Project” at the St. Albans Historical Museum. Sendler rescued 2,500 children from the Warsaw Ghetto, but her work was largely forgotten until three Kansas teenagers began researching her efforts for a school history project.
Mayer prefaced his remarks by telling the audience, “Stories of rescuers like Irena Sendler… do not correct the atrocities of the Holocaust.”
Such atrocities “leave a deep wound, a scar that can never heal,” he said. “When you have a wounded heart, you have to be careful.”
“Our young people must know this story so they will recognize when it returns,” said Mayer, going on to acknowledge the many acts of ethnic cleansing and genocide, which have transpired since.
Mayer himself is descended from German Jews. He spent his formative years in a Manhattan enclave of German Jewish – speaking German long before he spoke English. Many of his neighbors were survivors of the Holocaust, but it remained something spoken of in whispers by adults. “The Holocaust was the baffling but iconic story of my childhood,” said Mayer. “It was the unacknowledged elephant in the room.”
Mayer’s grandfather was arrested on Kristallnacht and sent to Dachau. Mayer’s grandmother eventually bribed an administrative guard with whom she had gone to high school to free him. Mayer learned the story over dinner with his family while a medical school student.
Mayer is especially compelled by the stories of rescuers. In Poland “hiding and even feeding a Jew was punishable by your death and the death of your family,” he said.
Yet, Sendler and her network risked their lives and the lives of their families to rescue 2,500 children from certain death.
Prior to the war, there were 1.3 million people living in Warsaw, 400,000 of them Jewish. When the ghetto was created in November 1940, one-third of the city’s population was crammed into 2.4 percent of its landmass.
A three-room apartment would hold as many as 30 people.
The Germans rationed food in Poland. German Poles were given 2,600 calories per day. Catholics were granted 700 calories per day. Jews, a mere 184 calories a day.
Malnutrition and severe overcrowding made the entire ghetto ripe for infectious disease. The ghetto was surrounded by a wall Jewish people themselves had been forced to build with bricks they had been compelled to buy the German occupiers.
Mayer displayed photographs of the ghetto showing people starving to death in the street. The photos were taken as propaganda by Nazi photographers.
One of the photographs shows four Jewish children begging for vegetables in the Aryan section of Warsaw. Young children were often the only people small enough to sneak through breaks in the walls. These children were caught by the Nazis. They would have been taken to a prison for children inside the ghetto. The mortality rate at the prison was “virtually 100 percent,” said Mayer, as a result of malnutrition and disease.
Sendler began her rescue efforts with orphans. Using forged documents listing her profession as infectious disease nurse, she could gain admittance to the ghetto. With help from ten other social workers, all but one of who was female, Sendler would bring the children from the ghetto to an emergency home.
The homes had hiding places for the children, should the Germans conduct a search.
Identification papers with a Polish name would be forged for the child who would then be placed with a family or in a Catholic convent or orphanage. About half of the children went to families while the rest were sheltered by nuns. The Jewish underground would send food and supplies to help the families care for the children.
Sendler kept lists of each child’s Jewish name and new identity. They were stored in jars buried in a fellow conspirator’s yard. It was a risk, but Sendler told Mayer she kept the lists because, “I want these children to know they are Jewish.”
The surviving lists are now in Israel, and about 650 of the children were eventually reunited with family members, although it appears none were ever reunited with their parents.
In 1942, the German’s began to empty the ghetto. Entire blocks were cordoned off and all of the Jews in those blocks were rounded up and placed on trains headed for Treblinka.
Unlike the other camps, there were no sleeping quarters at Treblinka, only gas chambers and crematoriums. “Treblinka was an extermination camp,” said Mayer. “Within two hours of arriving at Treblinka they were dead.”
Mayer showed a photo of Jews gathered on the train platform, waiting. If there were not enough cars, they would be kept there overnight, without food, water or toilet facilities.
Describing the photos, Mayer said, “There’s no sense of shame of something being wrong with this.”
Sendler had previously had to convince parents to give up their children. “After the deportations started parents were eager to have Irena rescue their children,” said Mayer.
He described the rescue of an eight-year-old girl named Gerta described for him by Sendler. Sendler was unable to watch the girl’s mother separating from her daughter. To the father, Sendler said, “After the war, you’ll be reunited.” He replied, “I don’t think so, but thank you for saying that.”
After making their way through throngs of people, Sendler got Gerta onto a tram. The girl spoke only Yiddish. Seated on Sendler’s lap, she was shaking and sobbing. When Sendler whispered to her to be quiet, she called out for mercy in Yiddish, drawing the attention of everyone on the tram.
Soon afterward, the tram operator stopped the tram and ordered everyone off, claiming the tram was not functioning properly. When Sendler went to leave, he stopped her, telling her to kneel on the floor with the girl. He then took them to a quiet neighborhood and let them off.
When Sendler asked him why, he answered, “I don’t know. I just did it.”
Social scientists and historians have tried to determine what makes someone a rescuer, according to Mayer, but have not been able to determine what distinguished those who risked their lives to rescue Jews from those who collaborated. “It seems anyone can be a rescuer or a perpetrator,” said Mayer.
Sendler herself attributed it to the values imparted by her father – to never fail to help a drowning person and that everyone has value, regardless of race, ethnicity or religion.
She was captured by the Gestapo in 1943, imprisoned and tortured.
After the war, the communist government in Poland buried the history of resistance to the Nazis, preferring not to highlight the efforts of freedom fighters, explained Mayer. And Sendler was largely forgotten until three Kansas girls stumbled across a reference to her in a new article entitled, “The other Schindlers.”
In 1999, Megan Stewart, Elizabeth Cambers, and, Sabrina Coons began researching Sendler after finding a single reference to her.
The students wrote a play about Sendler, “Life in a Jar,” for a history project. After discovering she was alive, they would ask for donations at performances for Sendler and other Polish rescuers.
In 2001, they traveled to Warsaw to meet Sendler, and visited several times before hear death in 2008.
Mayer first heard of Sendler in 2001 when he received a calendar from the Holocaust Memorial Museum, of which he is a member. He was flipping through the calendar and stopped at photo of Sendler, because she looks like his niece.
After reading the paragraph describing Sendler, he put it in a folder labeled “interesting stuff.”
Three years later, he came into work to find a copy of Ladies Home Journal on his desk. In it was an article about the three girls from Kansas. On impulse, he called their teacher, Norm Conrad.
Conrad suggested Mayer, who had long written fiction and poetry, write a book about the project. Hesitant, he sent Conrad a short story. After reading it, Conrad asked him to come to Kansas.
Still hesitant, Mayer went.
“Have any of you ever been in southern Kansas?” Mayer asked his audience. “There’s not much there, there.” The town where the students lived resembled a Depression-era photograph, he said, with half of the downtown buildings boarded up. There were only 120 students in the entire high school.
But once Mayer met Conrad and his students, “That was it. I fell in love.”
He remained for a week, doing interviews for the book.
Each of the three girls had had her own challenges, said Myers. One of the three had been abandoned by her parents and was being raised by her grandparents. Mayer described her as an angry teenager, one more likely to dropout than succeed in school.
She recently completed a second Master’s degree and is a middle school teacher. Another of the girls became an elementary school teacher and the third directs the Irena Sendler Project, a non-profit organization founded by Conrad.
“The last three children Irena Sendler rescued were the three girls from Kansas,” said Mayer.
Their efforts helped to crack the silence in Poland surrounding the Holocaust. Polish teens inspired by Sendler began searching for other rescuers. And Poland, which had had no national curriculum on the Holocaust, now teaches that history, including visits to the camps, to all Polish schoolchildren.
At a performance of “Life in a Jar” in Poland, Mayer said he was seated next to an elderly man who was clutching something in his hands the entire time. After the play, a Polish teen introduced the two, and Mayer asked the man what he was holding. It was the medal he had received for rescuing Jews from the Nazis. For decades it had been hidden in his basement and only his wife had known of it.
“I think how we tell this story matters,” said Mayer. The story of Sendler, interwoven as it is with that of three teenagers from an economically depressed area, presents a unique opportunity for engaging young people, in his view.
It is a story that demonstrates “all of us … can do something,” in Mayer’s words.
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Jack Mayor donates 60 percent of the royalties from his book to the Irena Sendler Project.