CM . . .
. Volume XXIII Number 9. . . .November 4, 2016
Irena’s Children: A True Story of Courage. Young Readers Edition.
Tilar Mazzeo. Adapted by Mary Cronk Farrell.
New York, NY: Margaret K. McElderry Books (Distributed in Canada by Simon and Schuster Canada), 2016.
257 pp., hardcover, $23.99.
Sendeerowa, Irena, 1910-2008-Juvenile literature.
Righteous Gentiles in the Holocaust-Poland-Biography-Juvenile literature.
World War, 1939-1945-Juvenile literature.
Holocaust, Jewish (1939-1945)-Poland-Juvenile literature.
Jewish children in the Holocaust-Poland-Warsaw-Juvenile literature.
Grades 7 and up / Ages 12 and up.
Review by Ruth Latta.
After four-year-old Piotr Zysman crawled from the sewers, he spent his first night outside the ghetto in Irena's apartment. Irena believed his parents, Jozef and Theodora, had made the right decision, but that did not make it any easier.
"Make sure he grows up to be a good Pole and an honorable man," Jozef had told her. He and Theodora knew they most likely would not live to see Piotr, their only son, again. Irena could not tell them any different. With ten thousand Jews shipped from the ghetto every day, it would not be long before there was no one left. Piotr had "good looks", like he might belong in a blond-haired Aryan family. His parents had to give him this chance. It would be a miracle if they survived.
A Polish couple named Waclaw and Irena Szyszkowski - friends of Jozef and Theodora - had agreed to take Piotr to live with them and their three small children. Waclaw and Jozef had been law students together before the war...
Piotr did not go straight to the Szyszkowski home once he climbed from the sewer. That night he went to Irena's apartment and she began to teach him everything he needed to learn to be safe on the Aryan side of Warsaw.
Piotr learned Catholic prayers and his new Polish name. "Never talk about your mama or papa," Irena told him. "Piotr, you must always say that your house was bombed. Remember, never say you are Jewish." It was a wretched thing to teach a child to recite, but Irena knew there was no choice...
Irena's Children is the story of Irena Sendler, a Polish social worker who saved the lives of over 2,500 Jewish children during World War II. Mary Cronk Farrell adapted Mazzeo's non-fiction work into a “The Young Readers Edition” for an audience of ten and up. In her "Adapter's Note", Farrell explains that she followed Mazzeo's lead in constructing a narrative based on the historical record.
Born in Otwock, Poland, the daughter of a doctor, Irena (1910-2008) grew up being friends with members of the Jewish community in that town as her family's home was open to everyone. Dr. Sendler, a founding member of the Socialist Party of Poland, treated both Catholic and Jewish patients. Later, as a student at the Polish Free University, Irena became part of a socialist circle. After graduation, she worked in Warsaw's social service office, administering city soup kitchens. She had three good friends from university, Ala, Ewa and Rachela, all of them Jewish. In 1939, when Hitler invaded Poland, Irena was living in Warsaw with her mother, and she witnessed the devastating bombing, fires and horrific deaths.
Farrell doesn't soft-pedal the Nazi atrocities. Appalled by the escalating persecution of Jews, Irena and her friends in the socialist movement formed part of the resistance, the underground movement which consisted of a number of groups, some left-wing, some on the right of the political spectrum. She and her social worker colleagues defied the regime's discrimination against Jews when it came to allocating food, clothing and money to the needy. They created fictitious clients in order to get more state funding which was used to aid Jews. To discourage the Nazis from checking on the fictional clients, they added notes to their files suggesting that these clients had cholera or typhus.
By October 1940, the Nazis had established a segregated Jewish quarter, known now as the Warsaw Ghetto. Jews were forbidden to leave, on pain of death, unless they had special passes, and anyone caught giving a Jew food, lodging or transport also faced the death penalty. Irena secured a pass to enter the ghetto as a sanitary inspector, and she smuggled in contraband goods and money gathered by the underground socialist movement.
Irena's focus on rescuing children began when the Nazis ordered a round-up of street kids. Thirty-two undocumented Jewish orphans came to the attention of Irena and her female colleagues. They consulted a powerful Warsaw welfare official, a right-wing Polish nationalist, who decided that these children should be smuggled into the ghetto for their safety. Irena and others worried that the ghetto would ultimately be a trap, not a refuge, for Jews, and they resolved, in future, to try to place homeless Jewish children either with Polish families or in Catholic orphanages. (The thirty-two children eventually were deported east to their deaths.)
Desperate Jews, starving in the ghetto, began smuggling their children out in the hope that they would somehow survive outside. Irena was part of the network that smuggled them out, hid the children and placed them. In 1942, when the Nazis began to clear the ghetto by deporting Jews east, supposedly for "resettlement" but actually for extermination, Irena's friend Ala, a nurse, hastily organized an unauthorized medical clinic at the railway terminal where she and other medical staff identified anyone too weak or too young for "resettlement". They commandeered an ambulance and took them back to the ghetto for temporary safety.
Irena was the one in the network who knew the true identities of the children she rescued and where they were placed. She kept a list in her head and on scraps of cigarette paper, and at one point buried a written list in a bottle. After the war, she and several of her friends in the resistance reconstructed the list from memory.
Of Irena's three Jewish friends from university days, two died and the third discarded her Jewish identity. After the war, when Poland fell under Soviet domination, Irena and others in the resistance were considered enemies of the communist state, and so their stories went untold. By the mid-1960s, however, the children they'd rescued were young adults and able to tell of their wartime experiences. In 1965, Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial organization in Israel, gave Irena its highest honour. She was named to the list of "Righteous Among the Nations" - people whose "Goodness renovates the entire world in the face of evil." In the late 1980s, Irena was allowed to visit Israel and meet many of the children she'd rescued, and in the 1990s her story was finally told in Poland.
In telling this story, Mazzeo and Farrell effectively used some of the techniques of fiction, such as interior thoughts, direct speech and presentation of scenes. The photographs of people in the story, along with archival pictures of people in the Warsaw Ghetto and being loaded onto trains, are compelling. The cover illustration of Mazzeo's original adult version, reproduced near the end of the Young Readers' Edition, shows two young orphans following a woman carrying a third child, and it is more appealing than the jacket illustration on the Young Readers' Edition.
Farrell's “Young Readers' Edition”, presumably less horrific than Tilar Mazzeo's original adult version, is still quite disturbing and unsuitable for pre-teens. Older teens, who have studied some history, would be a more appropriate audience.
Irena said, late in life, "While I was coordinating our efforts we were about twenty to twenty-five people. I did not do it alone." She would be pleased that Farrell included accounts of the contributions of some of the others involved. Irena's courage and ingenuity, and that of her friends and colleagues, are well worth reading about, but her associates never emerge as fully rounded "characters" because their stories had to be abbreviated.
The experiences of Piotr and other individual children are the element that would attract young reader interest, but again, in a book centring on Irena, they can't be the main focus. Their stories start as scenes but end as summaries. At one point, Farrell mentions teenagers who played key roles in the network, but none are profiled.
The promotional material for Tilar Mazzeo's original edition hints at some aspects of Irena's story not in the “Young Readers Edition”. For a more comprehensive account of this courageous woman's life, I intend to read the original edition of Irena's Children. Mazzeo is to be commended for taking on an important subject involving many individual stories, each of which would provide ample material for a book.
Ruth (Olson) Latta has a Master's in History from Queen's University, Kingston, ON. Her young adult historical novel, Grace and the Secret Vault, will be published by Baico Editions (firstname.lastname@example.org) in 2017.
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