Irena Sendler was born into a Catholic family in Poland in 1910. Throughout the German occupation in World War II, Irena worked tirelessly to help save Poland's Jews from the Nazi horror. Irena saved at least 2,500 Jewish children from certain death during the Holocaust. By the time of her death in 2008, Irena had been honored by the governments of Poland and Israel, Pope John Paul II, and many of those she had rescued.
A Hero of the Children of the Holocaust for Children Today
A review by Daniel L. Berek
It took a group of high school students from Kansas to make Irena Sendler known beyond Poland and Israel, so it is fitting that middle- and high-school students have a biography of this remarkable woman written for them. After all, Irena Sendler is credited with having saved some 2,500 children.
The book opens with a miracle on how Irena and her comrades were able to smuggle a six-month-old baby out of the Warsaw Ghetto in a toolbox, setting the stage for the heroic deeds of the members of Zegota, a secret underground army of Polish Gentiles who risked their lives to save the children of their Jewish brethren. Author Susan Brophy Down then takes the reader on a journey that starts with a background of the Holocaust in Nazi-occupied Europe and what it was like to grow up in pre-War and wartime Poland, the Nazi regime’s rise to power, and the meaning of anti-Semitism. The second half of the book takes the reader through the German invasion of Poland, the Warsaw Uprising, and the aftermath the Polish people faced.
Ms. Down writes in a way that is very understandable to the young reader; some of the pictures are difficult to look at, but that is unavoidable in a book that treats the Holocaust with honesty. The plight of the victims, both Jews and Poles, is well illustrated, but the focus of this book is on the active participation of the resisters, both adults and children, the latter all the more remarkable as the Nazi invasion was primarily directed against children, essential to Himmler’s Final Solution, to make Europe “Judenrein,” cleansed of people of Jewish ethnicity. The final chapter chronicles Poland’s post-War history and struggles under the tyranny of Josef Stalin; it also covers the new challenge Irena and her friends faced in finding the children she hid and reuniting those whose parents survived. Although Israel was the first to recognize Irena’s heroic deeds by honoring her with the title “Righteous among the Nations,” she was able to receive the award only in 1983, after the rise of the Solidarity movement. Then, there are the Kansas high school students, who created a play in 1999, “Life in a Jar,” to spread the word about her (which, in turn, inspired the ground-breaking 2011 PBS documentary, “Irena Sendler: In the Name of Their Mothers”). Finally, in 2003, the Polish government gave Irena Sendler the recognition she had deserved for so many years, awarding her with the Order of the White Eagle. That same year, Irena learned the American Center for Polish Culture in Washington, DC, bestowed upon her the Jan Karzai Award “For Courage and Heart.” About that baby who Irena smuggled out of the ghetto we learned about in the beginning. That baby is Elzbieta Ficowska; it was she who accepted the medal on Irena’s behalf.