Irena’s war, by James D. Shipman
This historical novel is based on the true story of Irena Sendler, a social worker in Poland who became a resistance fighter during WWII. Much of the action takes place in the Warsaw Ghetto starting in 1939, as the Nazis invade the region. Sendler’s father was a physician and treated many Jewish patients. When he died in 1917 from typhus, members of the Jewish community provided funds to pay for Irena’s education. By the time of the Nazi invasion, she had papers as a social worker that allowed her to enter the Jewish ghetto area. At first she focuses only on sneaking in food and supplies, but she soon realizes that the Jews most likely will be killed if they cannot find a way out of the area. Coming from a Catholic family, she is one of the significant “righteous Gentiles” who saved Jewish children by hiding them and smuggling them to safe locations.
Shipman has created a fictional SS officer, Klaus, in order to provide the viewpoint of those who would like to eliminate Sendler as well as anyone aiding the Jews. On the surface, Sendler is working for Klaus and the Germans, providing just enough sustenance to keep the Jews alive until they can be sent to the concentration camps, but behind the scenes, she finds way to get extra food as well as copies of documents. She is sent on rounds to monitor the health of people in the ghetto, and during these visits she makes friends with people who are willing to help with her mission to save as many Jewish children as she can.
There were various methods to get the children out of the ghetto. Infants were sometimes hidden in suitcases. Others were led out through the sewer system under the city. False documents listing the children as non-Jews were used, and, if a child could convincingly act like they were very ill, sometimes they could be taken out by ambulance and then rerouted to safety. Children were hidden with non-Jewish families, and Sendler’s contacts in the Catholic church allowed her to hide some children in convents and Catholic orphanages.
In 1943, Sendler became the director of the children’s aid section of Zegota, the Polish society that assisted those Jews still alive in Poland. She had been keeping track of the names of as many of the hidden children as she could, writing their names on slips of paper and burying them in bottles. She had hoped to reunite them with their parents, but almost all of the parents had been killed at Treblinka. In the end, many of the children were removed from Poland to be adopted by Jewish families in other countries. It is estimated that Sendler personally saved about 2,500 Jewish children.
Near the end of the war, Sendler was arrested, and she provided false information in order to continue to protect those she had placed in hidden locations. She was scheduled to be executed, but associates of Sendler were able to bribe the German guards who were escorting her, and she remained in hiding, using a pseudonym while she continued her work with Jews who needed help.
Not covered in this novel are the years after the liberation. Sendler remained an activist for most of her life, joining the Polish Solidarity movement in 1980. Many of the facts about Sendler’s life were kept hidden for many years by the communist regime in Poland. In the 1990s, documentation began to be released that has allowed Sendler’s story to be pieced together.
In 2003, Sendler was awarded the Jan Karski award for Valor and Courage. Sendler died in 2008, and in that year she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, but it was awarded to Martti Ahtisaari, former President of Finland, for his work in international relations. For readers interested in more of Sendler’s life story, the 2016 book “Irena’s children” by Tilar Mazzeo focuses on those saved by Sendler. In addition, the 2015 book “Life in a jar” by Jack Mayer is the story of how some high school girls in Kansas read of Sendler’s work and wrote a play based on her life.
This is Shipman’s sixth novel and the third based on the events of WWII. If you enjoyed “A bitter rain” or “It is well,” you will be familiar with Shipman’s ability to create realistic dialogue and scenes of an earlier era. “Irena’s war” includes some author’s notes with biographical background on the main characters, as well as specifying which major characters are totally fictional. I appreciated this epilogue, because historical fiction often leaves me wondering just how much of it was based on facts, so it is nice to have some of that information included in the book.