Irena’s Children: The Extraordinary Story of the Woman Who Saved 2500 Children from the Warsaw Ghetto by Tilar J. Mazzeo.
This book tells the story of Polish social worker Irena Sendler, a courageous woman who risked her life to save Jewish children in Warsaw during World War War II. As I read I was reminded of my (fictional) introduction to the story of the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw during World War II and of how the people living there were systematically and horrifically starved, persecuted, deported to death camps, Treblinka in particular, and finally exterminated. The ghetto itself was eventually burned and then razed. I read about all of this horror many years ago, first in Leon Uris’s book, Exodus, and then in his books that focuses on the Warsaw ghetto, Mila 18.
Many of the true stories in Irena’s Children mirror the stories that Uris told in his fictional accounts of the Holocaust. Irene Sendler and those who worked with her did smuggle Jewish babies out of the ghetto and place them in Christian (Catholic) orphanages and homes. They did take older children and adults through the sewers to get them out of the ghetto. Some Jews did escape just in the nick of time before the Nazis destroyed the entire ghetto, and others died in a failed, desperate uprising led mostly by teenagers and young adults who refused to be taken alive.
And Irena Sendler was a heroine, although she often vehemently denied any right to the title. She was a socialist and a humanitarian. She was not Jewish herself, but she had a Jewish lover, and therefore, a personal interest in the survival of Poland’s Jews. She risked her life again and again, however, for strangers, for children who could not thank her or protect her. She was eventually arrested and taken to a Gestapo prison, questioned, tortured, and scheduled for execution. She escaped with the help of the Polish Underground, and she went on to help more Jews and to survive the war and the Communist aftermath of the war.
I would have liked to have read more about Ms. Sendler’s life after the war, but that part of the story and of Irena Sendler’s life was given short shrift in a book that focuses mostly on her wartime activities. Ms. Sendler became a devout Catholic in her later years, and she was persecuted by the Communist government of Poland even as she was lauded by Jewish friends and friends of Israel around the world. The book has no index, and it could have used one since many of Irena Sendler’s associates had similar names and stories. The Polish names and places were hard for an English-speaking reader to keep straight, but Mazzeo does include a list of characters at the end of the book.