A confession: I finished this book nearly a week ago, but I still don’t know if I have the words to describe Tilar Mazzeo’s gut wrenching account of Irena Sendlar’s efforts to save Jewish children from the Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto.
Mazzeo introduces the reader to Sendlar as a young Polish girl, whose father, a Catholic physician, is willing to treat the poorer Jewish residents of their town. Although he dies when she is only 7 years old, his model of caring and compassion for all who are in need continues to guide her as she becomes a social worker, responsible for providing aid and support to the children of Warsaw. Mazzeo follows Sendlar’s personal and professional development through her years at university and early career, with special emphasis on her mentors and relationships with Jewish colleagues. In this way Mazzeo establishes the basis of her portrait – Irena Sendlar’s wartime actions were a deliberate expression of her principles. Her position within the social services bureaucracy gave her exceptional access to the ghetto, and her conscience instructed her to use that access to alleviate as much suffering she could.
Reading about the inhuman cruelty the Nazis inflicted is always painful, and Mazzeo’s sharp writing insists that her readers experience it fully. After cautioning readers that many of the people named will be lost by the end of the book, Mazzeo focuses closely on each individual she introduces, seeming at times to beg for the acknowledgement of each one’s existence and experience. Mazzeo is unapologetic in her harsh judgment of those who she describes as Nazis collaborators, including the Ghetto’s Jewish police. She is equally adamant that those who fought against the Nazis be remembered.
In telling Sendlar’s story, Mazzeo seizes the opportunity to place Sendlar’s actions within the context of the Polish underground. This is among the greatest gifts of Mazzeo’s writing, as her impressive scholarship provides insight into the relationship between Polish nationalism and the country’s attitudes towards its Jewish population. It highlights how Sendlar did not act as an individual renegade, rather her mission, and ultimately her life, were saved because of their links to the Polish resistance. In this way, Mazzeo effectively celebrates Sendlar’s remarkable individual courage as well as the network whose trust and strength was essential to her survival.
In the crowded field of Holocaust literature, Irena’s Children stands out for Mazzeo’s exemplary research, unflinching portrayal of heart-rending atrocities, and the humanity of its subjects. This book would be ideal reading and discussion for high school level European history classes.
(I received an electronic copy of this book from netgalley.com)