Sunday, April 07, 2013

We Can Be Heroes

Time and again, as I've studied various aspects of the Holocaust  and its callous and most permanent effects on my family in Eastern Europe, I've been struck by small astonishing stories of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.

The Holocaust wasn't simply some unexpected event, like a freak hailstorm. It was the desired result of cynical actions by real people against other people, in many cases neighbours and colleagues. Which is why it's so vital to seek out and reflect upon individual stories rather than view the Holocaust in terms of numbers and dates.

There are no shortage of tragic stories, tales of horror and sad, heart-rending cruelty. There are far fewer tales of heroism, but there were heroes; undoubtedly  many met the same fate as the Holocaust's primary victims. But make no mistake about it, the Holocaust's engineers understood that they could beat populations into submission, just as they reduced other populations to ashes. Who among us would risk our lives for strangers? Who would risk the welfare of their own family for nameless children?

Heroes come in many forms. I recently stumbled on a book about one such story. "Life in a Jar: The Irena Sendler Project", tells the story of Polish gentile Irena Sendler who smuggled around 2500 Jewish children single-handed from the Warsaw Ghetto. She was recognized in 1965 by Yad Vashem as one of the Polish Righteous among the Nations but her story largely forgotten for decades.

But as I've said, heroes come in many forms. The book describes the efforts of three grade 9 girls, Megan Stewart, Elizabeth Cambers, and Jessica Shelton, and an 11th grade girl, Sabrina Coons, who discovered the story of  Irena Sendler and made it their mission to learn more about this remarkable woman and, more importantly, share it with as many people as possible.

Irena Sendler died in 2008. The girls had an opportunity to meet her in 2001. Since then they've continued to tell the story, presenting a performance on Sendler before hundreds of audiences. The project is now being supported by the Lowell Milken Center, a sponsor of similar projects on the power of "unsung heroes."

While the heroics of Sendler's amazing feat goes without saying, it's also worth recognizing the merit of schoolchildren who saw a story that must be told, and ensured that it was.