What makes memoir/non-fiction great is that because the events described really happened, you don’t have to suspend belief, no matter how much you may want to. Some of the things in this book left me feeling astounded that people can be so cruel, so inhumane. What makes this story even scarier is the context in which I read it now, as the race for the presidential candidates heats up in 2016. The demonizing of Jews and Poles in this WWII story was the environment in which such atrocities seemed inevitable. Sadly, the foundation upon which such horror was built was xenophobia and nationalism. Similar rhetoric has been making the news here. Build a wall! Restrict Muslim immigration! Make America great again! This rhetoric keeps the power and the money where it currently lies, and makes America great for the privileged few. These are not the ideals upon which our country was founded. They are not mine.
This was such a difficult and depressing read, but with an important message. Irena Sendler was a Catholic Polish social worker in Warsaw during WWII. Her goal initially was to provide food and shelter for the Jews of the ghetto who were her clients. Later, her goal was to find safe harbor for as many Jewish orphans as she could. Irena’s Jewish friend, Ewa, asked her to bear witness to the atrocities committed against their neighbors and friends. And that is what she did, many times, watching her neighbors being marched to their demise, until finally she witnessed the Nazis marching her friend, a Jewish doctor and savior of orphans, to the depot where he would be forced into a train for passage to a death camp. As students of history we are taught to believe that we have a chance to prevent things like the Holocaust from happening again if we learn from the past.What made Irena Sendler risk her life to save Jewish orphans was her upbringing. Her father had taught her when she was very young and reinforced it throughout her life: when you see someone drowning you must save them, even if you can’t swim. You must do something. When that is repeated regularly to you as a child, that becomes your moral compass. It explains, why, when asked how she found the courage to do what she did, Irena said, “It was a need of my heart.” This brave woman, very simply, did what she had to do. She did not think she was a hero. Her only regret was that she couldn’t do more, save more children. Extraordinary story.
While she still had a radio, Irena found some comfort in the beauty of the music of Chopin. From another book I’m reading, I just learned about Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Polish Jew who played piano on Polish Radio until it was bombed in September of 1939 after Szpilman’s last Chopin concert aired. His remarkable story of survival at Treblinka is the subject of his biography, The Death of a City by his friend, the writer Jersy Waldorf, and the Roman Polanski film, The Pianist. That last Chopin piece was Nocturne in C sharp major, played here by Janusz Olejniczak in The Pianist.
Food was rationed in Warsaw during the war, and if you were Jewish, you were surviving on under 300 calories per day. Frequently, Irena’s main meal consisted of black bread and soup (euphemism for broth), or bread and jam, or just bread. The recipe for Polish Black Bread below comes from a YouTube video “How to make Polish Black Bread.”
POLISH BLACK BREAD
2-3 tsp. dry yeast 3 T unsweetened cocoa
3 T vegetable oil (not olive) 1 ½ tsp. salt
2 T molasses 1 ½ C lukewarm water (105º)
4 C all purpose white flour
To proof the yeast, place it in a bowl with the lukewarm water. Stir gently to mix. Gently stir in molasses. Set aside for 10-15 minutes until surface is foamy. (Longer if needed) Place dry ingredients in another bowl: flour, cocoa powder, salt. Mix with spoon until the color is even throughout.
Pour the yeast mixture into the bowl with the dry ingredients. Stir to mix and add 3 T oil. Stir to mix. Knead dough on floured surface by flattening, fold over, flatten, turn dough ¼ turn. Repeat several times. Form dough into ball and place in a bowl. (You can oil the bowl to prevent sticking, but I haven’t found it necessary.) Cover bowl with a light towel and let it rest in a warm place until dough has doubled, 45 minutes to one hour. To test for readiness, poke the dough with your index finger. If the indent remains, the dough is ready.
Grease and lightly flour a baking sheet, or cover with parchment paper. Sprinkle dough with flour. Flatten, fold in left and right sides, then top and bottom sides. Bring the seams together and pinch to close the seams. Shape into an oblong or round loaf. Place on prepared baking sheet, cover, and let rise again, 45-60 minutes.
After 45 minutes, check to see if dough has risen. Preheat oven to 350º. Make 3 slits evenly spaced across the top of the loaf using a sharp knife. Cover dough until oven has come to 350º. Place loaf in oven and bake for 45-60 minutes.
Remove bread from oven and let cool on a rack.