Sunday, September 3, 2017
Book Review: 'Irena's Children' by Tilar J. Mazzeo
"Irena's Children,” by Tilar J. Mazzeo, is the story of Irena Sendlerowa (Irena Sendler) who, along with a network of compassionate and courageous men and women, smuggled approximately 2,500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw ghetto. The boys and girls they saved were placed in convents, orphanages, and private homes for the duration of the war. Irena did not hesitate to perform what she perceived as her moral duty--to assist starving Jews living in overcrowded conditions and exposed daily to the scourge of deadly diseases. Because she had a special pass, Irene was able to sneak doses of typhus vaccines, food, and false papers into the ghetto. In addition, she and like-minded individuals spirited children out in boxes, coffins, suitcases, and even by way of the sewer system.
Irena "was a feather of a person with an iron spirit" who "fought with the ferocity and intelligence of an experienced general." She was resourceful, always looking for new and ingenious ways to accomplish her goals. For all of her admirable qualities, however, she was neither a devout Catholic nor a saint. Irena carried on an adulterous affair with a married man, Adam Celnikier. In addition, she admitted guiltily that she prioritized her rescue work over her responsibility to protect her widowed mother, Janina.
Mazzeo conveys the horrifying bestiality of the Nazi oppressors; the selflessness of parents who handed over their precious babies to Irena; and the capriciousness of fate. "Irene's Children" has evocative photographs that include pictures of Irena, the people who influenced and supported her, and heartbreaking scenes from the Warsaw ghetto. Although there is no index, the author includes a list of characters and extensive endnotes. It is important to know and appreciate the deeds of Irena Sendler, a remarkable humanitarian who exemplified grace under pressure, altruism, kindness, and humility--“I did not do it alone,” she insisted on a number of occasions. In 1965, the state of Israel honored her as a righteous person among the nations.
Editor's note: This review was written by Eleanor Bukowsky and has been reposted with permission. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.