Accelerated Reader program turns student on to true story

Published 12:00 am Saturday, November 18, 2000

It all began with a tattered copy of &uot;Jacob’s Rescue.&uot; Mark LaFrancis read it at the suggestion of his teacher, Karen Foley, who suspected the popular Holocaust story would strike a chord with her student. The book by Malka Drucker and Michael Halperin tells the story of Alex Roslan’s heroic rescue of a young Jewish boy in Warsaw, Poland, during the times of the Nazi occupation. &uot;Whenever I&160;saw the pictures in the back, that’s when I realized it wasn’t a fantasy book — it was a real, live story,&uot; the 11-year-old Cathedral student said.

And, when young Mark’s father, Mark LaFrancis, heard his son talking non-stop about the story, he wanted to know more.

&uot;I’ve always had a strong interest in the era of the Holocaust and World War II,&uot; the elder LaFrancis said.&160;&uot;So I read parts of it to see what he was taking about so much.&uot;

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And, when the elder LaFrancis discovered the pictures in the back of the book, he, too, made a connection.

&uot;Mark had become so interested in Alex Roslan — an ‘angel of mercy’ he would call him — that I thought we would try to call him.&uot; After a few calls to directory information, the father had a phone number to Roslan in Clearwater, Fla.

&uot;One night we were just talking about the book and I said, ‘let’s give him a call,’&uot; the elder LaFrancis said. &uot;Sure enough, Alex Roslan answered the phone.&uot;

As the father began to explain the reason for his phone call, Roslan opened up.

&uot;’Oh, that is my book,’ he said. ‘You’ve read my book,’&uot; LaFrancis said. &uot;I could barely get Mark to the telephone. He kept saying, ‘but he’s an angel of mercy. I can’t talk to him.’&uot;

Young Mark admits he was nervous — &uot;through most of it&uot; — but he did talk with Roslan, at length about the book, about history and about Roslan’s life.

For Foley, a veteran teacher, the LaFrancises’ ingenuity presented an opportunity in the classroom, as well.

Her students, who were studying the Holocaust at the time, decided to write to Roslan. &uot;I asked them to tell Mr. Roslan what you thought you could learn from this period in history and what you’d like Mr. Roslan to know,&uot; she said.

Since many had read the book as part of their Accelerated Reader program, some wrote about his story, too.

The letters were sent in late October, and Foley is hopeful Mr. Roslan will respond to the students.

Meanwhile, she saw an opportunity to build on her student’s interest sparked by that book.

&uot;Mark consumes everything about this period of history,&uot; she said. So, she assigned St. Maximillian Kolbe — known as the saint of the Holocaust — to young LaFrancis for the class’ All Saints Day report and project.

St. Kolbe, a Polish priest known for his evangelization efforts, was imprisoned at Auschwitz during the Holocaust. It was there he offered his life to the Nazis in the place of another prisoner, Francis Gajownicek. Sent to a bunker to starve, he wasn’t dying fast enough for the Nazis so they poisoned him, burned his body and then spread his ashes in the wind.

&uot;I did not know who the heck that person was,&uot;&160;said the young boy, who is also the son of Eileen Maher. &uot;But I talked to my dad about him and we just really got into it.&uot;

Again, a little research led the pair to a human connection — actually, two connections.

&uot;I found out that my grandpa (Dr. Richard Maher) doctored-up the man who St. Maximillian Kolbe saved,&uot; the young LaFrancis said. &uot;When I discovered that, it was the thing that made my jaw drop.&uot;

Maher had examined Grajownicek once, and the Massachusetts physician described the experience as &uot;having touched someone who touched the hand of God.&uot;

Moreover, the LaFrancises found a priest who had actually known the saint and studied with him in Poland. Young Mark LaFrancis talked with Father Lucian Krolakowski, who lives in Chicopee, Mass., at length over the telephone.

&uot;Father Lucian called back several times with marvelous anecdotes at St. Kolbe,&uot; the elder LaFrancis said.

And, when the family realized that Dr. Maher and Father Lucian lived only a short distance apart, they arranged for the two to meet during a recent trip to Massachusetts.

The impact of the stories isn’t lost on the young boy or his parents. &uot;I think he’s felt far more connected to the era of the Holocaust,&uot; the elder LaFrancis said.

&uot;And to the fact that real people do incredible things.&uot;

His son agrees.

&uot;A lot of people think the people in books are either dead or not real, but these guys were,&uot; the boy said.

And, for Foley, the story reaffirms what she has taught students for nearly 20 years.

&uot;It’s a series of coincidences that, in a sense, all started with a book,&uot; Foley said. &uot;But what it can open your eyes to and your heart to …&uot;

Editor Stacy Graning can be reached at 445-3539 or by e-mail at