Irena San­dler’s story is a true tale of courage

The Canadian Jewish News (Montreal) - - Books - MORDECHAI BEN-DAT SPE­CIAL TO THE CJN

Among the deeply af­fect­ing spaces at Yad Vashem, Is­rael’s na­tional mu­seum of the Holo­caust, sit­u­ated on the pine-cov­ered, west­ern hill of Jerusalem be­side Mount Herzl, are the Chil­dren’s Memo­rial and the mon­u­ment to Dr. Janusz Kor­czak.

Bril­liantly con­ceived by Moshe Safdie, the Chil­dren’s Memo­rial im­pos­si­bly eter­nal­izes the sense of scale and loss of the ap­prox­i­mately 1.5 mil­lion Jewish chil­dren mur­dered dur­ing the Holo­caust. The Kor­czak mon­u­ment de­picts the heart-rend­ing march in Au­gust 1942 to the Um­schlag­platz in War­saw by Kor­czak (born Hen­ryk Gold­szmit), his col­league Ste­fa­nia Wil­czyn­ska and the 200 chil­dren who were un­der their care at Kor­czak’s or­phan­age. Kor­czak and Wil­czyn­ska re­fused to aban­don the help­less chil­dren to the Nazis.

The hor­rific con­texts un­der­pin­ning both memo­ri­als in­ter­sect in Ti­lar Mazzeo’s su­perb work, Irena’s Chil­dren. The book tells how Irena Sendler, a Catholic so­cial worker in War­saw dur­ing the dark days of World War II, con­ceived and di­rected a se­cret re­sis­tance net­work to save Jewish chil­dren – and oth­ers, too – from the cruel death in­tended for them by War­saw’s Nazi con­querors.

Sendler died in 2008 at the age of 98. Out­side of Is­rael, her un­be­liev­able wartime hu­man­i­tar­i­an­ism was lit­tle known un­til rel­a­tively re­cently. In 1965, Yad Vashem be­stowed upon Sendler the des­ig­na­tion of Right­eous Among the Na­tions. The Com­mu­nist regime in Poland, how­ever, re­fused to al­low her to travel to Is­rael to at­tend the spe­cial cer­e­mony. In 1991, Is­rael made her an hon­orary cit­i­zen.

It was nearly a decade after the 1989 end of Com­mu­nist rule in Poland that her ex­ploits be­came widely known, iron­i­cally through the pub­lic ef­fort of a high school in Kansas that cast a the­atri­cal spot­light upon her life through the play Life in a Jar: the Irena Sendler Project. Then, sud­denly aware of what Irena had done dur­ing the war, groups and gov­ern­ments around the world be­gan to rec­og­nize the diminu­tive oc­to­ge­nar­ian. She re­ceived in­ter­na­tional awards, ci­ta­tions and dis­tinc­tions for her brav­ery. Sub­se­quently in 2009, Irena was the sub­ject of a made-for-tv-movie, and in 2011, a PBS doc­u­men­tary. But true to the self­less­ness that an­i­mated her and drove her con­stantly for­ward through chok­ing fear and ubiq­ui­tous ter­ror, she re­fused to view her­self as a hero or her work as heroic.

Mazzeo’s book won­der­fully adds to the grow­ing body of artis­tic and schol­arly work that has been com­piled about Sendler and her res­cue group. Mazzeo is a gifted writer who ap­plies her grace­ful prose to aching, com­pelling ef­fect as she records the melan­choly his­tor­i­cal facts that are doc­u­mented in me­moirs, ar­chives and his­tor­i­cal sources.

Mazzeo tells Irena’s story – a work of non-fic­tion – with the spell­bind­ing hold of a spy novel. With grip­ping de­tail and mas­ter­ful pace, she keeps the reader cap­tive in a hold-one’s-breath plot of heart-stop­ping hide, seek and chase. She de­scribes the “raw courage” dis­played by Irena and her con­fed­er­ates as they thwart the Nazis time and again. She recre­ates the suf­fo­cat­ing, hor­rific at­mos­phere of

Irena’s Chil­dren: A True Story of Courage By Ti­lar J. Mazzeo

(Gallery Books 2016)

I re­ally won­der how the hearts of the eye­wit­nesses, my­self in­cluded, did not break in two.

the se­cret lives of the Sendler res­cue net­work.

“The risks of course, were colos­sal. Giv­ing a Jewish child a piece of bread meant death – for both the giver and the re­ceiver. Send­ing a child out of the ghetto to hide with a Pol­ish fam­ily came at the price of a bul­let to the head on a street cor­ner. But the dra­co­nian con­se­quences also meant, as Irena could not help but ob­serve, that one might as well do more than just smug­gle in vac­cines [to the ghetto]. You could die only once.”

Many per­sonal, eye­wit­ness ac­counts of “life” in the War­saw Ghetto have been pub­lished since the war. Mazzeo’s ac­count is nei­ther repet­i­tive nor re­dun­dant of them. By fo­cus­ing on Sendler and on her driv­ing des­per­a­tion to pluck as many chil­dren as pos­si­ble from that ghetto, Mazzeo pro­vides a de­tailed “out­sider’s” per­spec­tive of the over­whelm­ing, sur­real, ap­palling bru­tal­ity of ex­is­tence be­hind the high brick and barbed wire-coiled walls.

After wit­ness­ing the sor­row­ful spec­ta­cle of Kor­czak walk­ing with his chil­dren to the Tre­blinka-bound trains, Irena was in­con­solable. “Re­mem­ber­ing that tragic pro­ces­sion of in­no­cent chil­dren march­ing to their death, I re­ally won­der how the hearts of the eye­wit­nesses, my­self in­cluded, did not break in two… Of all my most dra­matic war-time ex­pe­ri­ences, in­clud­ing my ‘res­i­dence’ and tor­ture in Paw­iak Prison, be­ing tor­tured by the Gestapo on Szucha Street, watch­ing young peo­ple

Irena San­dler

die… not one left so great an im­pres­sion on me as the sight of Kor­czak and his chil­dren march­ing to their death.”

One of the boys whom Irena saved later wrote, “I con­stantly think that I have en­coun­tered a real mir­a­cle: I was be­stowed the gift of life… [by] the great and won­der­ful Irena… the guardian an­gel of those in hid­ing… Irena, who in the sea­son of great dy­ing, de­voted her en­tire life to sav­ing Jews.”

But Irena ac­cepted no praise for her work. As Mazzeo dole­fully notes, “Irena walked in­stead with the ghosts of those who were miss­ing – with the loss of Dr. Kor­czak… with the loss of the tens of thou­sands of chil­dren who walked in­no­cently, with a piece of soap in hand, into the ‘show­ers’ that awaited them at Tre­blinka.

“Even sur­viv­ing, she knew, was a har­row­ing ex­pe­ri­ence for the small he­roes. Irena al­ways said that the real courage be­longed to them [the chil­dren]… Above all it be­longed to the moth­ers and fa­thers who let them go.

“She was, Irena al­ways in­sisted, the least im­por­tant part of a frag­ile but as­ton­ish­ing net­work that spread across War­saw in the thou­sands… just one part of a vast fra­ter­nity of strangers.”

Irena and her coura­geous friends saved the lives of some 2,500 Jewish chil­dren, al­though, in truth, the fi­nal num­ber of lives Irena and her friends saved can never re­ally be tal­lied.

For, as Mazzeo points out, the num­ber “echoes in that ex­po­nen­tial way of gen­er­a­tions.”

(The pub­lish­ers have also pub­lished a Young Reader’s Edi­tion of Irena’s Chil­dren, adapted for a mid­dle-grade au­di­ence by award-win­ning au­thor and jour­nal­ist Mary Cronk Far­rell.)

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