Sunday, May 20, 2012

Irena Sendler by Susan Goldman Rubin

Irena Sendler and the Children of the Warsaw Ghetto tells the story of a young Polish Catholic social worker who lived in Warsaw, Poland, in 1939. A petite woman, only 4 ft, 11inches, Irena watched in horror as the Nazis invaded her country and bombed beautiful Warsaw into ruins. When Poland surrendered on September 28, 1939, Irena joined the resistance movement of the Polish Socialist Party. Her goal was to save those whose lives were most endangered. When the Nazis began to focus on the Jews, Irena turned her attention to the Warsaw ghetto where thousands of Jews resided in horrible conditions.

In July 1942, the Nazis began transporting the Jews from the ghetto to Treblinka, a death camp. Irena knew that it might not be possible to save the adults, but she could try to save the children who were almost certain to die. She joined a new underground organization, Zegota, The Council for Aid to Jews, and working with the leader of the organization she organized and carried out the rescue many Jewish children. The young children were often secreted out of the ghetto in sacks, coffins or toolboxes.

Many of the rescued Jewish children  had to learn Catholic prayers and how to make the sign of the cross because they needed to be convincingly Catholic if stopped by Nazi patrols. Irena did not rescue the children in order to convert them to Catholicism, as some have claimed, but because "my heart told me to".

Irena Sendler
Eventually, Irena was captured by the Nazis and tortured but she refused to divulge any information. She was beaten so badly that both her legs and her feet were broken. Even when she was threatened with death, Irena did not waver.

It was always Irena's hope and intention to reunite the children rescued with their parents and so she kept a secret list of the children on a soft, transparent paper strip which was hidden inside a glass jar buried under an apple tree in Warsaw.

Irena Sendler and the Children of the Warsaw Ghetto is a beautifully crafted picture book telling the remarkable story of Irena and her work in saving Jewish children during the Holocaust. The book is richly illustrated with oil paintings on canvas, enhancing the overall drama of her story, which only came to be known after the fall of the Communist regime in Poland.

Irena Sendler was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2008. She passed away that year.

Book Details:
Irena Sendler and the Children of the Warsaw Ghetto by Susan Goldman Rubin.
New York: Holiday House      2011
40 pp.

A second book that was published in 2011, entitled Irena's Jars of Secrets also tells how Irena came to be involved in the rescuing of over 2500 Jewish children. Her father was a doctor who treated poor Jewish families in Warsaw, even if they could not pay. He impressed upon her the idea that one must always help those in need. When Irena entered the Warsaw Ghetto disguised as a nurse, she was overwhelmed by the suffering she saw and she became determined to help. When the Nazis began transporting the Jews to Treblinka, she knew that she must try to save as many children as possible.

In order to keep track of the children, Irena stored lists of their names in glass jars buried beneath an apple tree. After the war, the Jewish Congress attempted to reunited the rescued children with their parents, but sadly most were murdered in the death camps.

Irena Sendler's story remained untold throughout most of the 20th century but the Jewish people honoured her as Righteous Among the Nations in 1965. Finally with the fall of the communist government in Poland, her courage was rewarded with that country's highest honour, the Order of the White Eagle.

Irena Sendler never won a Nobel Prize although she was nominated in 2008. Sometimes, even the Nobel Prize committee gets it wrong. But to the many many people alive in 2008 directly as a result of the courage and sacrifice of Irena Sendler, it hardly matters. Their lives are a testament to her love, bravery and charity.

 Irena's Jars of Secrets is illustrated with the beautiful oil paintings of artist Ron Mazellan. Mazellan's piantings capture the fear and terror of the moment such as when the Jewish citizens were being rounded up and sent to the ghetto (above) or when they were fleeing the ghetto in secrecy (right).

This detailed picture book also contains an Afterword providing more details about Irena's life, a glossary, and a list of books and websites for further research.

Book Details:
Irena's Jars of Secrets by Marcia Vaughan
Illustrated by Ron Mazellan
New York: Lee & Low Books   2011

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