Title: "Irena's Children: a True Story of Courage"
Author: Tilar J. Mazzeo
Publisher: Gallery Books; Simon & Schuster, Inc., New York, N.Y.
This riveting story of Irena Sendler's efforts to save children from Nazi extermination shows her remarkable determination and wit to rescue 2,500 of them from the walled Polish ghettos. Her many friends and husband were Jewish, though she was not. This fact, with the accompanying passes that showed her to be a public health specialist, allowed her freedom to move about Warsaw and within the ghettos.
The Germans were so terrified of contracting the epidemic diseases rampant inside the walls that they left the jobs of health and sanitation to the "dispensable" Polish people. Though punishable by death, Sendler and her co-workers smuggled medicines and food into the ghetto. She dared take only a small amount at a time and was careful to enter through a different checkpoint each visit lest officials question why she was making so many trips.
Early in 1942, it became apparent that people needed to be saved. Sendler and her friends devised methods for removing children from the ghetto. First the rescuers had to find families on the outside willing to add these children to their homes to claim as their own.
When she was given control of the Child Welfare Division of the Polish in-exile Jewish Aid Council, called Zegota, Sendler was able to rescue on a larger scale. Throughout 1942 and the first months of 1943, Gestapo pressure worsened as many Jews were killed or sent to the death camps. The last most gruesome escapes were through the underground sewers where someone waited near a manhole on the other side for the filthy ones who made it out.
Sendler worried, when the war was over, how families would be reunited. She kept records of each child's birth and new name plus the family who accepted them. These she wrote on thin cigarette papers, placed them in sealed glass soda bottles and buried them in a garden with only one witness.
The net closed on the Zegota group. On Oct. 19, 1943, Sendler was arrested by the Gestapo. She saw many of her friends brutally beaten, killed for not giving the wanted information and then killed even if they did. Sendler was beaten many times throughout the months of confinement. Her face was smashed in many times, she lost most of her eyesight, and her limbs were broken many times over. She was not killed as her captors thought she would eventually give up and give them the whereabouts of Zegota, thinking it was the name of a high Polish resister, not the organization of which Sendler was the leader.
"One day, I heard my name," Sendler said. Jan. 24 was the day of her execution. Instead of going left, the guard took her to the right out into the pale winter sunlight. "You are free. Save yourself fast," he growled. Barely understanding, Sendler insisted, "I need my papers. Give me my papers!" The German's eyes flashed with rage, "You lousy thug, get lost," he said as he pounded his fist into her mouth. Somehow, she did make it home, saw her name posted among those killed that day for the crime of providing aid to Jews.
This fast-moving story takes the readers through the war, details of the cunning ways the children were saved, activities of the Zegota group and the agonies suffered in the Szucha and Pawiak prisons. A 14-page section of photographs shows Sendler as a young girl, war scenes of Poland ghettos and Sendler as an elderly woman. She died peacefully in 2008 at the age of 98. A commentary of the children (who are no longer children) and glossary of Sendler's network, both without and within the Warsaw Ghetto, and of her family completes the book.