Irena's Children: The Extraordinary Story of the Woman Who Saved 2,500 Children from the Warsaw Ghetto

Image of Irena's Children: The Extraordinary Story of the Woman Who Saved 2,500 Children from the Warsaw Ghetto
Author(s): 
Release Date: 
September 26, 2016
Publisher/Imprint: 
Gallery Books
Pages: 
336
Reviewed by: 

“This is history, through the glass darkly, with all the attendant perils of the great darkness that was the Holocaust in Poland, both during and after the Second World War and in the decades of communist rule that followed. I have used in all cases my best judgment as a historian and scholar and then proceeded to get on with telling the story of an astonishing group of men and women who saved from the darkness thousands of children.” —Tilar J. Mazzeo

In 1939, Irena Sendler is a social worker in Warsaw. As waves of Nazi bombers, tanks, and Wehrmacht divisions swiftly put Poland into submission, Irena realizes that the large Jewish population of Warsaw is in extreme danger. Nazi laws deprive Jews of almost everything, including their freedom, wealth, jobs, schools, and homes. Having many close Jewish friends and a Jewish lover in the Polish resistance, Irena volunteers to save as many children as possible.

Irena cannot bear to witness Jewish families brutalized, incarcerated and tortured. But the punishment for helping a Jew is very severe. Those who aid them risk imprisonment, torture or death according to Nazi laws. 

“The friends and (social work) coworkers gathered together one evening in Irena’s second floor flat. In between cigarettes, glasses of cordial and good-natured chatter, the women decided to do something simple – a small but dangerous act of Polish resistance to the new German rulers. They would quietly circumvent the rules. Because of their disease-control passes, they are firsthand witnesses to the coming horror. And they will risk their lives trying to stop it. Irena is their natural leader, and their actions will bind these friends together in life and death. Not all of them will survive this endeavor . . .”

A Nazi edict forces Jews to leave their homes and move into a decrepit, walled-in section of Warsaw called a “ghetto.” Jews may no longer leave the ghetto without a permit. Non-Jews may not enter the ghetto. Almost 400,000 Jews are trapped, completely isolated, and at the mercy of Nazis who vow to exterminate them.

News trickles gradually into the ghetto—rumors of death camps. A handful of survivors escape Nazi death factories and bear witness to industrial genocide on a scale never imagined. It is gradually understood that death awaits Jewish families in the Warsaw Ghetto in places with names like Treblinka and Auschwitz.

Lacking visas or identification cards, escaping Jewish families are almost always recaptured and sent to Nazi death camps. Roving gangs of Polish youth receive a stipend for capturing Jews. Jewish families caught escaping the ghetto are turned in to the Gestapo by Poles in the city or by farmers outside the city. No one can be trusted.

The train ride to their death is long and brutal. But before they are crushed into cattle cars, they are forced into a town square in Warsaw. “Thousands of bodies pressed mercilessly together in the summer heat. The whiff of excrement, sweat and terror is already powerful. There are no facilities, no place to sit. There is just this fetid square, baking in the sun, and endless fear and misery.”

Jews die at a prodigious rate within the ghetto, from starvation, sickness and Nazi brutality. They become victims of torture and rape, before death. Nothing becomes more critical than saving the children. Irena vows to make that a reality.

Terrifying stories from beyond the ghetto arrive, filled with gas chambers and crematoria, slave labor, starvation, sickness, brutality, and medical experiments. Jews know what awaits them outside the ghetto if captured. Inside, they slowly starve, freeze, and suffer the constant threat of their children being tortured and killed.

Because Irena is a social worker, she holds a pass enabling her to enter and leave the ghetto at will. At first, Irena smuggles a handful of Jewish children here and there, mostly with friends and relatives outside the ghetto. It seems simple. But she soon begins to grasp the depth of suffering among Jewish families. Parents, desperate to save their children, give tearful stories to Irena. Screaming children resist the moment of escape with Irena. It’s a horrific scene. In most cases, children and parents will not survive or see each other again. Irena is committed to save as many children as possible.

Soon Irena draws the attention of the organized Polish resistance, a cadre of volunteers who attack German troops, supply lines and facilities. The resistance works with Irena to save trapped Jews in the Warsaw ghetto, especially children. Irena, dubbed after the war as, “the Polish Oscar Schindler,” organizes a wide network of individuals, friends, family and church personnel. They create hope for trapped Jewish families where there was none.

But the resistance is not the only group who finds Irena interesting. Her network to save Jewish children soon falls under the dark gaze of the Gestapo. Irena vows to continue, regardless of the danger to herself, to her lover, or to Irena’s aged and infirmed mother. Somewhere between calculated acts of confrontation and reckless abandon, Irena lives on the edge. She continues to saves lives until she is arrested.

Despite horrific torture, including many fractured bones, Irena refuses to divulge who she is or where her list of saved Jewish children may be found. As Nazis continue to search for a woman who has been rescuing Jewish children, the Gestapo has no idea that she is already in their cold, drafty basement. The Polish resistance organizes a massive bribe, and Irena is released. But the far reach of the Gestapo continues to search for her.

As Irena and the resistance have no chance of defeating the well-trained and equipped German armed forces, their goal is to save as many innocent people as possible. Eventually they take thousands of Jewish children out of the Warsaw ghetto, fanned out into hundreds of homes, churches, and Polish families. Some escape Europe, although many remain elsewhere in Poland.

Irena maintains the only list of Jewish children rescued by her and her compatriots, including their Jewish names and the names of families accepting them, scratched on shredding pieces of thin cigarette paper. Eventually the list is buried outside the Warsaw home of a friend.

Irena’s Children is terrifying and fascinating—a heart-rending tale of compassion and fear, and a must read for anyone with an interest in WWII, the Holocaust, and courage. Author Mazzeo delivers with creativity and compassion. This book is evocative, haunting, and gripping.  

This book is impeccably researched, and it captures the heart of Irena Sendler; however, it would greatly benefit from the addition of pictures, maps, diagrams, or any other visual tool. Perhaps they will be added to the book beyond the galley this reviewer received.