On heroes: Irena Sendler, Phil Zimbardo, Kendall Fielder


I arrived in Kraków yesterday – or perhaps today, I’m not smart enough to untangle the time differences.  I spent a good part of the afternoon reacquainting myself with old haunts and half-familiar streets. The city is awash with images of its native son, John Paul II, who was beatified on May 1. Photographs are in windows, banners on the streets, and large biographical displays mark two sites I’ve passed so far.

May 1 was also the national screening of PBS’s In the Name of Their Mothers, about Irena Sendler and the women of Żegota, who saved 2,500 Jewish children from certain death during the Holocaust. I’ve written about it here and here and here and here.  Alas, I doubt the film got much attention; it unexpectedly vied with President Obama’s announcement of the killing of Osama bin Laden. I strongly suspect the latter event got the upper hand. But May 1 is significant for other reasons.

My lighter airplane reading was Irena Sendler: Mother of the Children of the Holocaust. I didn’t hold out much hope for this modest, yet reasonably expensive ($40) book with the clumsy title – but the newly translated biography-of-sorts by Anna Mieszkowska is so far the only work that exists in English. Fortunately, the book so far has proven much better than my subdued expectations. For one thing, a good deal of it is written by Sendler herself, from letters, memoirs, and recollections she left behind.

A spider or a Rorschach test?

So what else is May 1? It is also marks the celebration of Divine Mercy this year – a custom instituted by the late pope, who, in another mysterious link, died on the eve of the Polish visionary whose writings caused the celebration.

The event is linked with Sendler, too.  From Mieszkowska’s book:  

A period of mass executions began at Pawiak Prison. Every morning the cell doors opened, and those called out never returned. “I once found a small, damaged picture with the words ‘Jesus, I trust in You!’ I hid it, and had it with me all the time.”

The footnote to this text says: “This picture, which she described as the most valuable object in her life, Irena posted in a letter (describing its history but not leaving a return address) to Pope John Paul II during his first visit to Poland.”

Skinner: Kind of a hero herself

Somewhere I heard the story that the pope returned it to her later, and she gave it back to him, and it’s in a museum somewhere. I can’t remember.

Mary Skinner, the filmmaker behind In the Name of Their Mothers (and kind of a hero herself) told me the image was a signal the women of Żegota sent to each other and left for each other – sometimes just to buck themselves up.

Turning away from the dark side

In any case, I keep the image in my wallet, reminding myself of their example, and not to be such a sissy. When a member of the Polish literati saw it, he acted as if I had shown him a spider. Well he asked.

All this links with a current Science article about Phil Zimbardo’s work on heroes – that’s right, Zimbardo of the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment. His latest work explores the basic idea that “anyone can be a hero,” he said.

At age 78, he has reinvented himself as a social entrepreneur, leading a new project that will attempt to turn the Stanford Prison Experiment and other studies of the dark side of the human psyche into a force for good. Last year, Zimbardo founded the Heroic Imagination Project … “Our ambition is to seed the world with heroes,” Zimbardo says.

A different kind of military hero

He’s putting his money where his mouth is:

“This is my new mission in life,” he says. He chipped in $30,000 of his own money to start the project and has since raised nearly $250,000 more from other donors. He’s considering auctioning off some of his art and wine collections. “I grew up in abject poverty in the South Bronx,” Zimbardo says. Now that he has nice things, he says he’s willing to give them up if that’s what it takes. Zimbardo seems to have thrown himself wholeheartedly into the challenges of his grand new experiment – and the shot at redemption. “It’s rescued my career from being Dr. Evil to being Dr. Good,” he says.

Some other good stuff he’s done is here.

At one point, Phil was asking for examples of heroes. I suggested Irena Sendler, of course. I also suggested someone I’m proud to consider a relation: my grandfather-in-law Brigadier General Kendall Fielder, who resisted the orders for the confinement of Japanese Americans in Hawaii.  (He was also the highest ranking officer exonerated after Pearl Harbor.)

G'night from Kraków and Wawel

Greg Robinson, who has written about him in two of his books about the Japanese internment, explained heroism this way:  “You never know who will have a moment of grace, and under what circumstances.”

Ah, I hear Wawel Cathedral tolling midnight …  in the which reminds me I’m in Kraków…

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9 Responses to “On heroes: Irena Sendler, Phil Zimbardo, Kendall Fielder”

  1. Rorschach e seu teste arrebentam na busca da personalidade! Says:

    Rorschach e seu teste arrebentam na busca da personalidade!…

    […]On heroes: Irena Sendler, Phil Zimbardo, Kendall Fielder | The Book Haven[…]…

  2. Thomas M. West Jr. Says:

    My father was a Sigma Nu at Georgia Tech with Wooch Fielder and spoke of him from time to time. I am watching “From Here to Eternity” as I write this and note that he was Technical Advisor.

  3. Cynthia Haven Says:

    How very cool! What did your father say about him?

  4. Millard Greer Says:

    BG Kendall Jordan Fielder was born and reared in my hometown of Cedartown, Georgia. The Fielders were outstanding citizens in our little town. You may or may not know Fielder is listed in The Georgia Tech Football and Baseball Hall of Fame! In our local paper dated 1918 a letter from Lt. Fielder to his brother tells of his experiences in the war. Posted next to this article is a letter from Lt. General Robert Lee Bullard to a family member in Cedartown. I grew up just a few houses from the old Fielder home place, which still stands.

  5. Cynthia Haven Says:

    I’m passing this on to the family historian, Millard. Thanks!

  6. Bill Fielder, Jr Says:

    BG Fielder was my Dad’s first cousin….maybe second. They shared the same Grandfather. Thanks.

  7. Kraków Fan Says:

    great picture of Wawel!

  8. Dan Fielder Says:

    I’ve done genealogy for years, on the Fielder Family. Wooch was a true Heroe no doubt, for resisting the orders of confining the Japanese Americans in Hawaii. Look what he was rewarded with for his efforts. The most decorated military unit in world history. God Bless the 442nd. I haven’t made a connection to him as of yet. Bill, I’d like to no there Grandfathers name and any history you may have on him. By the way, Kendall was put to rest in the Punch Bowl Cemetery in Hawaii, for anyone wanting to no. Thank You All.

  9. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Thanks for checking in, Dan … you must be related, yes?