From Poland to Kansas: the amazing story of Irena Sendler
Irena’s Children: Young Readers Edition: A True Story of Courage
By Tilar J. Mazzeo
Adapted by Mary Cronk Farrell
Margaret K. McElderry Books (Simon & Schuster)
On sale now
Holocaust rescuer Irena Sendler lived in anonymity for decades, until a group of Kansas high school students discovered her.
by Brianna Westervelt
In 1999, a group of high school students from Uniontown, just west of Fort Scott, Kansas, were looking for a topic for their history project. And so it was that Irena Sendler, whose heroic feats were not even well known inside her native Poland, finally received the worldwide praise she had long deserved.
During the Holocaust, Sendler made it her mission to save as many Jewish children from the tragic conditions of the Warsaw ghetto as possible. Through a network of friends and trusted strangers, she helped at least 2,500 children escape certain death. I suppose Irena's, Jaga's, Jadwiga's, Ala's, Irka's, Wladyslawa's, Maria's, and Janka’s Children was too lengthy a title but, in reality, there was an entire community of women, both inside and outside the ghetto, committed to removing children from that area of death and devastation.
The women used a number of techniques to smuggle children out of the ghetto, like issuing them Catholic birth certificates. If a child could pass for Aryan, they simply changed the child’s name to something more traditionally Polish. In another escape technique, a Jewish baby was placed inside a toolbox in the bed of a truck and simply (or, rather, not so simply) driven out of the ghetto. Once out, the children were usually sent to live in other parts of the city of Warsaw or throughout the country with well-meaning families, usually Catholic, who were willing to integrate these Jewish children into their normal lives.
While I haven’t read the original version of this book, the narrative of this young adult adaptation is consistently scintillating. The narrative moves in such a way that keeps your heart pounding—even when you pick the book back up, the pounding picks up right where it left off. Thus is the pace of the book and Irena’s story.
“Some parts of the story are so terrible I didn’t want to write them, and they might be sad and painful for you to read. But if we don’t know about the Nazis’ brutality, we can’t begin to understand Irena’s bravery.” In other words, this is important to know, says the author and adapter. The “After the War” chapter does well to tie up all the stories of the different women from throughout the book, as the chapter is basically an epilogue.
For her troubles, Sendler was arrested and tortured by the Gestapo, but she survived the war and returned to her native Poland. The country's communist regime was unimpressed. When Israel wanted to give her one of its highest honors in 1965, the government refused to let her go. So she lived in relative obscurity in Warsaw, but not so obscure that she couldn't be discovered by a group of high school students in Kansas. They would produce a play about Sendler titled Life in a Jar, which would be performed at Kansas City's Congregation B’nai Jehudah in 2002. Sendler, then in her 90s, became world-renowned.
Hallmark turned the play into a "Hall of Fame" production, The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler. At the movie’s premiere, President of Hallmark Hall of Fame Productions Brad Moore said, “We just want to honor them [the Uniontown students and teacher] for what they did to bring this story to the world’s attention.”
Despite her courage, and her numerous awards after the fact, Sendler (who died in 2008) was humble to the end. “Let me stress most emphatically that we who were rescuing children are not some kind of heroes,” she said. “Indeed, that term irritates me greatly. The opposite is true—I continue to have qualms of conscience that I did so little.”