Author Archives: Harris Sherline

Character Matters – Irena Sendler

By Harris R. Sherline

We often read or hear stories about courage and heroism without stopping to think about the greater meaning they convey.  And, all too often, we make a brief mental note of them and move on with the routine concerns of our daily lives.  But, such stories have special meaning – because they exemplify the best and perhaps most important aspect of personal character: helping others without any expectation of compensation or reward.  Doing good for its own sake.

It happens every day.  A passerby rushes into a burning building to save someone they don’t know, a fireman risks his life to save a dog that’s fallen through the ice, a co-worker donates an organ to an unrelated fellow employee who cannot survive without a kidney transplant, or a woman like Mother Teresa, who dedicated her entire life to caring for those who are sick and poor.  Such selflessness offers hope and encouragement in a world in which we witness far too much hate and violence.

This is the story of a woman who routinely risked her life for two years during the Nazi occupation of Poland to help Jewish infants and children, a woman who received little if any recognition for her selfless, sustained acts of heroism and asked for nothing in return.

In 1999, four high school students in a small Kansas town were asked by their teacher to check out a magazine article he read about a Polish woman, who had reportedly saved the lives of 2,500 Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942 and 1943. He said he’d never heard of the woman and speculated that the article may have gotten the facts wrong.  The students followed up as a National History Day project and discovered that the story was not only true but that this heroic woman was still alive at the time.

Irena Sendler (Sendlerowa), a Polish woman, was one of many heroes and heroines of WWII.  Yet, until recently, very few people had heard of her.  A woman of uncommon courage and principle, for two years she risked her life in the Polish Ghetto to rescue some 2,500 Jewish infants and children.

According to a website created to tell her story (www.irenasendler.org), the students “found that Irena Sendler, as a non-Jewish social worker, had gone into the Warsaw Ghetto, talked Jewish parents and grandparents out of their children, rightly saying that all were going to die in the Ghetto or in death camps, taking the children past the Nazi guards or using one of the many means of escape from the Ghetto – the old courthouse for example – and then adopting them into the homes of Polish families or hiding them in convents and orphanages. She made lists of the children’s real names and put the lists in jars, then buried the jars in a garden, so that someday she could dig up the jars and find the children to tell them of their real identity…The Nazis captured her and she was beaten severely, but the Polish underground bribed a guard to release her, and she entered into hiding.”

As an administrator at the Warsaw Social Work Department during the war, Irena began making false documents for Jewish friends when the war started in 1939.  From 1939 to 1942, she made documents for people in the Warsaw area, helping many to escape before she joined the underground Zegota and started saving children.  She had a network of helpers (twenty-five at one time), almost all social workers, who rescued both adults and children from the Warsaw Ghetto, made false papers for them and found places to hide them.

Irena was eventually caught by the Gestapo and put in Pawiak Prison, where she was tortured and had a leg and arm fractured.  Zegota bribed a guard to have her released in the night to a member of the Underground shortly before she was about to be executed, and she remained in hiding throughout the rest of the war.

EPILOGUE
Irena passed away on May 12, 2008 and was buried in a Warsaw, Poland cemetery.

The great irony of Irena Sendler’s story is the fact that she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, but it was awarded to Al Gore, a man whose own character is highly questionable.   However, I believe she will be remembered long after Al Gore’s name has become just a footnote to history, demonstrating once again that character matters.

© 2008 Harris R. Sherline, All Rights Reserved
NOTE: Read more of Harris Sherline’s commentaries on his blog at “opinionfest.com.”

“Float Like A Butterfly, Sting Like A Bee”

By Harris Sherline

“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” was perhaps the most widely recognized taunt during the years that Muhammad Ali dominated the fight game. He was and is a larger than life personality, transcending even the ravages of Parkinson’s disease, which sidelined him some years ago.

But, the Muhammad Ali most people remember, especially America’s seniors, is a man who overcame every obstacle he encountered on his way to the top of his profession, exhibiting uncommon strength of both character and will as he went. He is a towering personality, still beloved by people around the world.

Without question, Muhammad Ali was the most famous African American of his time and remains among the most widely recognized faces on the planet, widely remembered as one of the greatest prize fighters of all time, if not the greatest, a three-time winner of the heavyweight world title. Famous for his prowess in the ring and his ability to promote himself, he grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, the son of a billboard sign painter and a household domestic. He was named after his father, Cassius Marcellus Clay, Sr., which Ali changed when he joined the Nation of Islam in 1964.

However, “Aligning himself with the Nation of Islam made him a lightning rod for controversy, turning the outspoken but popular champion into one of that era’s most recognized and controversial figures.”

There was a time when Ali was reviled and attacked by many of the very people who later came to admire him. During the Vietnam War, he refused to serve in the United States Army, on the grounds that he considered himself to be a conscientious objector, stating, “War is against the teachings of the Holy Qur’an. I’m not trying to dodge the draft. We are not supposed to take part in no wars unless declared by Allah or The Messenger. We don’t take part in Christian wars or wars of any unbelievers.”

I remember, at the time, most Americans thought his claim was merely a ploy to avoid serving in the military, that he was ungrateful for the opportunities and financial success he had been able to achieve in this country. But, he stood firm, not only adhering to his Muslim faith but having to deal with having his title stripped from him.

Ali said, “I’m not trying to dodge the draft. We are not supposed to take part in no wars unless declared by Allah or The Messenger. We don’t take part in Christian wars or wars of any unbelievers.” Ali also famously said in 1966: “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong …They never called me nigger.”

When he appeared for his scheduled induction into the U.S. Armed Forces in 1967, Ali “refused three times to step forward at the call of his name. An officer warned him he was committing a felony punishable by five years in prison and a fine of $10,000. Once more, Ali refused to budge when his name was called. As a result, on that same day, the New York State Athletic Commission suspended his boxing license and stripped him of his title. Other boxing commissions followed suit.”

The jury gave Ali short shrift, finding him guilty after deliberating for only 21 minutes. He received the maximum sentence, which was upheld on appeal in New York, and the case subsequently went to the U.S. Supreme Court, where he ultimately prevailed. After not being able to fight for three-and-a-half years, he regained his title in 1974, defeating the then champion, George Foreman, in one of the biggest upsets in boxing history. Held in Zaire, Africa, the fight was billed as the “The Rumble in The Jungle,” drawing the largest audience in history at the time.

Although Ali has been faulted for many of the choices he has made during his lifetime, he is a living demonstration of the fact that “character counts,” displaying uncommon courage and strength of character by converting to the Muslim religion in the face of widespread intolerance, refusing to yield in spite of the damage to his reputation and the loss of his livelihood, and the threat of losing his freedom. He was clearly prepared to go to jail for his principles.

Today, at age 66, dealing with the ravages of Parkinson’s disease, Ali is a living example of character and grace. Notwithstanding the various shortcomings and perhaps his less than exemplary behavior at various times during his earlier life, Ali has become a model of courage and dignity for all to see and emulate. Traveling throughout the world to participate in a wide variety of events, he has become one of the most beloved figures of our time, a living example of the fact that character counts.

Blessed with a gift for words, Ali has made many quotable statements. “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” is perhaps the best known, but others truly exemplify his great character:

Hating people because of their color is wrong. And it doesn’t matter which color does the hating. It’s just plain wrong.

I know I got it made while the masses of black people are catchin’ hell, but as long as they ain’t free, I ain’t free.

Friendship is the hardest thing in the world to explain. It’s not something you learn in school. But if you haven’t learned the meaning of friendship, you really haven’t learned anything.

I never thought of losing, but now that it’ s happened, the only thing is to do it right. That’s my obligation to all the people who believe in me. We all have to take defeats in life.

Old age is just a record of one’s whole life.

To be able to give away riches is mandatory if you wish to possess them. This is the only way that you will be truly rich.

Wars of nations are fought to change maps. But wars of poverty are fought to map change.

We have one life; it soon will be past; what we do for God is all that will last.

What keeps me going is goals.

© 2008 Harris R. Sherline, All Rights Reserved

NOTE: Read more of Harris Sherline’s commentaries on his blog at “opinionfest.com.”