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 she was there, she began to understand the fate that awaited the Jewish families who were unable to leave. Soon she reached out to the trapped families, going from door to door and asking them to trust her with their young children. 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 a secret list buried in bottles under an old apple tree in a friend's back garden. On it were the names and true identities of these Jewish children, recorded so their families could find them after the war. She could not know that more than ninety percent of their families would perish. Irena's Children, "a fascinating narrative of...the extraordinary moral and physical courage of those who chose to fight inhumanity with compassion" (Chaya Deitsch author of Here and There: Leaving Hasidism, Keeping My Family), is a truly heroic tale of survival, resilience, and redemption.
Tilar Mazzeo writes an engaging narrative. This is absolutely not a dry, textbook type of read. Mazzeo gives us emotion, passion, and insight. She lets us see and feel what the people involved experienced. We don't tackle the whole of WWII or even the whole of the Holocaust, but instead we witness the destruction of Poland and its people from the perspective of a handful of people.
This story feels personal. This story hurts. But it also offers hope, because people like Irena are quietly living their lives all around us, and maybe, if we pay attention, we can learn something from them.
*I was provided with an advance copy by the publisher, via NetGalley, in exchange for my honest review.*
I’ve read hundreds of Holocaust books, non-fiction and fiction. This one is non-fiction and it’s one of the very best books of its kind that I’ve read. I had no qualms about giving it 5 stars. It’s a splendid book, well written and brilliantly organized and expertly constructed. It’s incredibly dense with information, but always readable and engaging. I found it hard to put down, though at times it was extremely painful to read.
I cannot stress enough how much I learned from this book. I got a better feel for the scope of the conditions inside the Warsaw Ghetto, Warsaw and Poland during WWII than I have from reading most other books about it, perhaps more than from any other book. I learned so much about Irena and her background that it made sense why she was as she was and why she did what she did. Many people I’d known about from reading other books make appearances and it was interesting to see how they were connected to each other, including to Irena.
The book is well researched, with a fine explanation from the author about what few liberties she took (I found her and the book’s contents trustworthy!) and how she conducted her research. There are extensive notes and an impressive bibliography. I appreciated what photos were included and wish that there had been even more of them.
It was a good time for me to read this book. Despite its serious and sometimes heartbreaking subject matter, I was fine with reading it over the holidays. I took courage from what these people went through. They and their situations made what trepidation I feel for what we’re facing later this month doable. I got courage from their willingness to do the right thing. This book could have been titled Dozens (maybe Hundreds) of People’s Children. So many participated in trying to save lives and so many were incredibly brave. I hope I would have the courage to do what's right, as might be required, over these next few years! Irena’s bravery and the bravery of those she worked with and the bravery of many other Poles, non-Jewish and Jewish, is so inspiring. They were remarkable people, and ordinary people. I could hope to be only a fraction as brave. There were so many heroes. Unfortunately, there were obviously a huge number of victims, but also so many that were saved, and that is inspiring.
While it turned out that none of them were actually safe, they could certainly have protected themselves better than they did by not trying to help. I was particularly touched by those who had children of their own and risked so much to help other people’s children; their actions were life threatening for them and for their entire families.
I did learn a lot about Warsaw throughout WWII and I’d never realized quite how in danger the Catholic and other non-Jewish Polish people were in, especially toward the end of the war.
How could so many people be so brave (this book must be read to see just how almost superhuman bravery was exhibited time after time!) and how could so many people have acted so evilly? I was left more uplifted than in despair.
One example of what fine storytelling this book has is one of the chapter titles led me to assume one thing, as does the way this book begins (with Irena’s arrest by the Gestapo) and because of that I’d assumed something, until I looked at the photos section in the middle of the book. But why that was done makes perfect sense. The reader follows Irena over time (through her triumphs and tragedies and challenges – with the full gamut of thoughts and emotions and experiences) and the presentation was not done gratuitously but in a way that I as a reader got a real sense of how it was for Irena and all the others, adults and children, non-Jews and Jews, people of all persuasions in this time and place.
I honestly can’t imagine going through what Irena and many of her contemporaries did, and obviously what the Polish Jews had to endure in the ghetto and being sent to Treblinka or otherwise murdered, well I cannot imagine coping. Yes, there is much real life tragedy in this account, but the truly amazing efforts of so many who did what they could to save lives, of adults as well as a large number of children, left me feeling in awe.
There is horrific content and there is a lot of suspense but it also has sweet and lovely and joyful parts.
This is a timely book, telling a story that needed telling, and an excellent effort, and I highly recommend it.
Since the author interviewed Irena, she had
There are abundant memorable statements by Irena throughout the book, many are standouts for quoting. Many were also life-changing for Irena.
Although most of the main story ends in 1945, parts of it extend to 2016. Several events occurred during those later decades so it is worth reading past 1945 because those events reflect on the morality and leadership of those earlier years.