Irena's Children: The Extraordinary Story of the Woman Who Saved 2,500 Children from the Warsaw Ghetto by Tilar J. Mazzeo
on September 26, 2017
From the New York Times bestselling author of The Widow Clicquot comes an extraordinary and gripping account of Irena Sendler—the “female Oskar Schindler”—who took staggering risks to save 2,500 children from death and deportation in Nazi-occupied Poland during World War II. In 1942, one young social worker, Irena Sendler, was granted access to the Warsaw ghetto as a public health specialist. While there, she reached out to the trapped Jewish families, going from door to door and asking the parents to trust her with their young children. She started smuggling them out of the walled district, convincing her friends and neighbors to hide them. Driven to extreme measures and with the help of a network of local tradesmen, ghetto residents, and her star-crossed lover in the Jewish resistance, Irena ultimately smuggled thousands of children past the Nazis. She made dangerous trips through the city’s sewers, hid children in coffins, snuck them under overcoats at checkpoints, and slipped them through secret passages in abandoned buildings. But Irena did something even more astonishing at immense personal risk: she kept secret lists buried in bottles under an old apple tree in a friend’s back garden. On them were the names and true identities of those Jewish children, recorded with the hope that their relatives could find them after the war. She could not have known that more than ninety percent of their families would perish. In Irena’s Children, Tilar Mazzeo tells the incredible story of this courageous and brave woman who risked her life to save innocent children from the Holocaust—a truly heroic tale of survival, resilience, and redemption.
“Heroes,” she said, “do extraordinary things. What I did was not an extraordinary thing. It was normal.” (262-263)
I arrived in Orlando at ALA Annual last year, with a nonfiction book on my list to pick up, Irena’s Children. I secured an ARC, and recently finished the book during a flight from Boston to Atlanta for ALA Midwinter. I can tell you that this book is fantastic!
The story of Irena and her group of courageous individuals working to save the lives of children during an incredibly dark time in world history was intense, inspiring, beautiful, heartrending, and miraculous!
I don’t often post reviews of nonfiction titles, but this is one book I would recommend that EVERYONE read. Sometimes the truth is as wondrous and as strange as fiction. In the case of Tilar J. Mazzeo’s text, that notion is incredibly true.
The book is set up in chronological order, and charts Irena’s journey as a young woman first becoming concerned with the plight of Jewish children in Nazi-occupied Poland, and eventually moving to become a major player in the Polish resistance. Many different characters are introduced as they relate to the vast and courageous network of individuals who worked with Irena to smuggle children out of the Warsaw ghetto. This collaboration had Irena at its head, but around twenty to twenty-five other individuals played important roles. Mazzeo points out as well, that the actual number of people who took part to help save these children are actually “dozens upon dozens.”
The pacing of the story is perfect–including details and scenes of what took place as Irena and her network worked through truly terrifying and high pressure situations in order to thwart the Nazis and rescue Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto. Mazzeo provides plenty of relevant and interesting information about Irena, born in 1910, and continues to strengthen the narrative by also describing the people with whom Irena connected earlier in her life, that would later play a role in her work to save children.
Can you imagine facing the pressure of separating hundreds of children from their parents, and somehow keeping a secret record of where those children were hidden and their real names so that they could be later connected with their parents after the war?!? I can only begin to imagine what a monumental and perhaps stressful task this must have been. Sadly, the vast majority of parents ended up perishing by the end of the war. The book does refer to the emotional pain that Irena experienced at forcing, out of necessity, a child to leave his/her mother and father. How could you explain to a two year old that he/she has no choice but to leave a beloved parent? It’s almost unthinkable.
Irena is basically considered the female “Oskar Schindler” but, as this book attests, her identity as a resilient and brave woman who achieved the extraordinary can stand on its own. Irena isn’t the only “hero” in this book, however. Mazzeo portrays many other figures who assisted Irena in her courageous attempt to save children from a terrible fate.
This book was both gripping and difficult to read. It depicted a timeline of events I sometimes didn’t want to think about, and yet, it was a timeline of events I had an obligation to read about. And to encourage others to read about. What Irena and her network accomplished should be honored and remembered. The children who perished during the Holocaust should be remembered. The children who endured the most difficult of circumstances during this period in history should be remembered. For all these reasons and more, read Irena’s Children.
For here is an important book. A necessary book. A book you must read, even if it is the only book you read all year.