Irena Sandler’s story is a true tale of courage
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
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.)