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Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Irena's Jars of Secrets: Marcia Vaughan

Occasionally, I do clean my office and rearrange book shelves -- and recently I was doing just that when I happened across a book (2011) that I recall loving and thinking I would blog about it.  I don't think I ever did.  But it touched my heart again and IMHO  it should be in every library in America.  We must always know of our past - in order that we don't repeat the mistakes of history.  The book is featured on the publishers website at

Irena's Jars of Secrets by Marcia Vaughan, illustrated by Ron Mazellan (Lee and Low Books, 2011) is an account of a young Catholic girl, born in Warsaw, Poland in 1910, Irena Sendler.  She was raised by her parents to respect all people regardless of race or religion.  Her own father died when Irena was just 7 -- he had caught typhus treating patient.  He was the only doctor in the area who would treat poor Jewish people.  Irena was just 29 years of age when the Nazis invaded Polad.  More than 4000 Warsaw Jews were forced into the Warsaw Ghetto.  Their movement strictly restricted.  Irena was a social worker and saw much of the struggle to survive.  Because she was an nurse (with papers to investigate illnesses inside the ghetto) she was allowed to come and go into and out of the ghetto.  She knew she had to help -- and she decided one way she could help was to save the children.  Parents learned to trust Irena and soon she had convinced some parents to let her take their children to safety -- Irena and fellow workers hid babies under the floorboard of ambulances; others were hid under stretchers.  Babies were carried "out in baskets, boxes, tool chests, sacks, and suitcases."  Sometimes the children were hidden among garbage.  Many foster families were found.  Irena kept a record of each child she rescued and placed in safer places.  The record was put in a jar, buried under an apple tree in her neighbor's yard. Eventually she was betrayed.  She was arrested, questioned, tortured - but she never gave up the secrets in her jar.  She was scheduled to be executed by firing squad.  The day after her scheduled execution, lists all over Warsaw listed Irena among those executed the day before.  Unbeknown to the Gestapo, members of the Zegota had paid a bribe and she has been set free, secretly.  Eventually the Gestapo found out but by then Irena was in hiding where she continued to work for the Zegota.  At the end of World War II (1945) Irena returned to the apple tree, recovered her lists and gave the names of 2500 children rescued to the Jewish National Committee.  Most of the children survived the war, most of the parents did not.  Some of the children were reunited with other relatives, some stayed with their non-Jewish families, and others went to live in other countries.  Irena was given many awards, near the end of her life, in honor of her heroic work.  Her very last years were spent in a nursing home in Warsaw where one of her caregivers was a child she had smuggled out of the ghetto years earlier, in a carpenter's box hidden under a load of bricks.  Irena Sendler died May 12, 2008 at the age of ninety-eight.
Ron Mazellan's art for this book beautifully depict the despair of the ghetto and the steadfast earnestness of the members of the Zegota who were determined to save children.  Mazellan represents Irena as the courageous woman she was, from her first years working to save children to her final days as a hero.  But the author tells us that Irena did not see herself as a hero.  Vaughan ends her story of Irena Sendler with a quote by Irena Sendler, from a letter sent to the Polish Senate in 2007 - the same year she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.  Those words are the same words I will conclude this narrative:
"Every child saved with my help and the help of all the wonderful secret messengers, who today are no longer living, is the justification of my existence on this earth, and not a title to glory." ~ Irena Sendler
Many resources are included at the end of the picture book text, along with a glossary and pronunciation guide,  following an afterword.

Jack Mayer - author of the book: Life in a Jar:
the Irena Sendler Project.
Very few people had heard of Irena Sendlerowa, until four high school students engaged on a year-long history project.  Their story and the story of their project (and website) Life in a Jar: The Irena Sendler Project is told in many articles and on many sites on the Internet -- but the one definitive site seems to be Life in a Jar: The Irena Sendler Project at
Jack Mayer wrote a book titled Life in a Jar: The Irena Sendler Project (Long Trail Press, 2011).  The book tells of Sendler's life as well as the life of the project began by the four high school history researchers.   

The picture book  Irena's Jars of Secrets by Marcia Vaughan, illustrated by Ron Mazellan (Lee and Low Books, 2011) will provide a great springboard for a discussion of:
  • Holocaust
  • Survivors
  • Heroic Deeds
  • Nobel Peace Prize
  • International History Project
  • The Power of One
  • Untold Stories in History
UPDATE:  On May 12, 2008 Irene Sendler died and at the time of her death she was being cared for by one of the children (a baby) Sendler had saved during the war.   
Born: February 15, 1910, Otwock, Poland
Died: May 12, 2008, Warsaw, Poland
Awards: Order of the Smile, More
Parents: Stanisław Krzyżanowski, Janina Krzyżanowska
Spouse: Stefan Zgrzembski (m. 1947–1959; b. 1905-d. 1961), Mieczysław Sendler (m. 1931–1947; b. 1910-d. 2005).  Some sources record that Irena remarried Sendler after her divorce in 1959 from Zgrzembski, but was divorced a second time from Sendler.
Children: Janina Zgrzembska, Adam Zgrzembski (d. 1999), Andrzej Zgrzembski (died in infancy)

There are other books about Irena Sendler.  Susan Goldman Rubin's, with illustrations by Bill Farnsworth is one of the best.

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