During the horrific days of World War II, countless ordinary people performed stunning acts of heroism and selflessness. We will never know most of these stories, and the ones we do know may be forgotten as the number of survivors dwindles. That is what makes books like IRENAʼS CHILDREN so vital.
Written by Tilar J. Mazzeo and adapted for younger readers by Mary Cronk Farrell, IRENAʼS CHILDREN is the story of Irena Sendler, a young Polish social worker living in Warsaw during World War II. Horrified by the injustices and cruelty she saw unfolding every day, Irena decided she had to help in whatever way she could. The path she found was smuggling Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto. She began working through her social work office. When that became too dangerous, she formed a network of friends and acquaintances, both Jews and Gentiles, who helped her transport and hide the children. Even more dangerous was the list of names Irena kept in her head and on slips of paper hidden in her office and home. It was important to Irena not only that the children survive, but that their families had a way of tracing them after the war. Most of the children lost their entire families during the Holocaust, but, thanks to Irena, many still knew their names and the names of their parents even if they had been too young to remember when they were hidden. Farrell quotes one survivor who was taken by Irena to be hidden when she was just an infant: “My birth certificate is a small silver spoon engraved with my name and birth date, a salvaged accessory of a salvaged child.” Before the war, there were an estimated one million Jewish children in Poland; by the end, only about five thousand remained. About half of those children were saved by Irena Sendler and her network of helpers.
"IRENAʼS CHLDREN does not talk down to its readers or gloss over the dreadful realities of the Holocaust. Farrell presents the facts simply and truthfully while emphasizing the existence of brave people who wanted to help."
The book opens in Warsaw in 1939 as the Nazis invade Poland and implement their systematic destruction of the Jews. Irena is a social worker in her late twenties. She has a vibrant social life, with both Jewish and Gentile friends, and she is passionately devoted to her work. As the Nazi laws for Jews become more and more strict, Irena and her friends try to save as many families as possible. Eventually the Jews of Warsaw are imprisoned in a small, walled-off neighborhood, or ghetto. No one can enter or leave without permission. Conditions in the ghetto are desperate; disease is rampant and there is not nearly enough food. People die every day from illness and starvation. When the Nazis begin sending huge numbers of Jews --- men, women and children --- to the east by train, unthinkable rumors return of entire families, whole communities, being killed.
Despite the danger to herself, Irena feels she cannot stand by and watch while so many are persecuted and murdered. She expands her network to smuggle as many infants and children as possible out of the ghetto and into the hands of families who will hide them. Irena keeps meticulous records of each childʼs name, birth date, and history in hopes that they will reunite with their parents after the war. These lists are the most treacherous part of Irenaʼs work; if discovered, they could provide evidence of her crime and lead the Nazis to the children and those who hide them. The danger is extreme and the stories heartbreaking; parents give their children to Irena, with no idea where they will be taken and knowing they will most likely never see them again. Ordinary citizens are murdered by the Germans every day for much less than hiding a Jewish child, but Irena never considers stopping. Her friends are disappearing one by one, and each day could be her last. In such an evil environment, why not try to do what little she can to help?
Eventually, after being arrested and nearly executed, Irena is forced to go into hiding. She survives the war, but very few of her friends remain. After the Germans are defeated, the Soviet Union takes control of Poland and stories of Polish heroism in the war are discouraged. The new regime worries that stories of Polish national heroes will inspire the people to rebel again. Although many Jewish children know the name of the woman who saved them, Irenaʼs story is not widely known until many years later. Now, when few Holocaust survivors remain, it is more important than ever that we teach these stories to the next generation.
Although children need to learn this history, I have never understood how to teach young people about such unspeakable atrocities. How do we explain the inexplicable? Farrell has handled this masterfully. IRENAʼS CHLDREN does not talk down to its readers or gloss over the dreadful realities of the Holocaust. Farrell presents the facts simply and truthfully while emphasizing the existence of brave people who wanted to help. The book is entirely nonfiction but reads like a novel. Farrell builds the sense of steadily increasing fear and despair which gripped the Jewish community, but the tone is never hopeless. Those who save children at great risk to themselves are visible throughout the book, bringing light to even the darkest parts of the story.
It is also worth mentioning that the heroine of this book is, in fact, a heroine. Womenʼs achievements are often overlooked in favor of the deeds of men, especially in times of war. Irenaʼs femininity is one of her strengths. Often called the Polish Schindler, Irena was able to move more freely in Warsaw because she was a woman. Perhaps the Germans perceived a small young woman as less of a threat. Perhaps parents were more willing to entrust their children to a woman. It is important to note and to celebrate the fact that the person who saved 2, 500 Jewish children was a woman.
Apart from its historical significance, IRENAʼS CHILDREN is simply a great read. Very rarely do I want to reread a book immediately after finishing it. When I finished IRENAʼS CHILDREN, I went right back to the beginning and started again. Farrell is a brilliant storyteller. One of the bookʼs many strengths is its intimate portrayal of key characters, both the saviors and the saved. It is difficult for adults, let alone children, to grasp the immensity of the Holocaust. The numbers are shocking - over ninety percent of Polandʼs Jews were wiped out during World War II - but numbers are cold and desensitizing. They do not evoke the incredible pain of handing over oneʼs child to strangers, or the sheer joy when friends presumed dead return unharmed. IRENAʼS CHILDREN is brilliant in its focus on one story in the midst of a vast war --- one woman, in one city, saving one child at a time. Irena Sendlerʼs story needs to be told all over the world, in every classroom, to every child. With this book, Farrell has turned Irenaʼs story into a gift.
Reviewed by Rebecca Hawkins on November 30, 2016