Tilar J. Mazzeo

Irena’s Children

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Irena’s Children Summary

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Irena’s Children: The Extraordinary Story of the Woman Who Saved 2,500 Children from the Warsaw Ghetto (2016) is a biography by Tilar J. Mazzeo. A New York Post Best Book of 2016, it is an account of Irena Sendler, who took unimaginable risks to save many Jewish children from death in Nazi-occupied Poland during World War II. Mazzeo, a Professor of English at Colby College in Maine, is also a cultural historian and biographer. Popular with general readers, Irena’s Children was one of Kirkus Reviews’ Ten Most Anticipated Nonfiction Books of 2016.

Irena’s Children opens with a prologue describing Irena’s journey to Szucha Avenue—the location of the Gestapo headquarters, where countless men and women are tortured for information. No one yet knows that Irena is one of the most important members of the Polish underground, responsible for moving hundreds of Jewish children to safety, and she plans to keep it that way. The rest of the book is the story of how she ended up in Szucha Avenue, and what happens after she is questioned.

The first chapter describes Irena’s early life, and where she is brought up. Her father is a physician and one of the earliest members of the Polish Socialist Party, which is slowly gathering momentum. When Irena nearly dies of whooping cough as a toddler, the family moves to a small Polish village, where her father sets up a private practice. He is the only doctor in the area who will treat impoverished Jews, and the family is very popular.

Irena grows up respecting and loving Jewish people the same as she does Polish people. She is raised to make friends with everyone and always to help people in need, wherever they’re from. This caring attitude is one she will carry with her for the rest of her life. As she gets older, it surprises her to learn that not all Polish people are so accepting of Jews and that many Jewish people are living in squalor. Irena vows never to take her comfortable background for granted.

Irena’s father dies when she is only a young girl, and her mother struggles to keep a roof over their heads. They move to a new city, but Irena finds new friends. She joins the Scouts and decides she will always protect those who can’t protect themselves. Never once, even as a child, does she waver in her determination to help people and offer friendship.

When Irena grows up, the Jewish community her family helped so much offers to pay for her education. She is working as a social worker in Warsaw when WWII breaks out in 1939. She does all she can for the Jews, and she helps them find food and shelter. No one expects the war to last long, or for it to become as catastrophic as it does. When the war drags on, and the Warsaw Ghetto is erected, Irena feels helpless, because she can’t help Jewish people the same way anymore.

Outraged at how the Jews are treated, Irena decides to do something about it. First, she must gain access to the Ghetto. Using her social worker papers and a friend’s medical papers, to pose as a healthcare worker, she’s allowed inside the Ghetto. Once inside, she convinces Jewish parents to trust that she will do everything she can to secure their children’s safety.

Irena, with the help of Zegota, a Polish underground movement for helping Jewish people, forges countless identity papers for these children, convincing her extended network of friends and family to take them in as their own. Privately, she keeps a list of all their real names, so that one day, the children can be reunited with their real families.

The book describes the ways that Irena smuggles the children from the ghetto. She hides children under stretchers in ambulances, moves them through the courthouse and the underground sewer passages, puts them in sacks hidden on trolleys, and has them feign illness so they can be legally removed for hospital treatment. However, Irena is eventually caught.

Held in Piawiak Prison, Irena is battered and broken as the Germans torture her for information. She doesn’t give in, and she’s sentenced to death by firing squad. However, Zegota bribes a German official who helps her escape on the day of her execution, and she goes into hiding. Nazi Germany believes her to be dead.

When the war ends, Irena’s work truly begins. She recovers her old list, trying to reunite families, but most of the parents died in the concentration camps. For most of her life, the public does not know the lengths she went in order to save Jewish children. It is only since the turn of the twenty-first century that people have been made aware of her heroism. She died in 2008 in Warsaw. Irena’s Children is a story of redemption, love, and hope that rings true with the troubles we face in our own time.