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Sunday, September 23, 2012

Irena Sendler and the Children of the Warsaw Ghetto, written by Susan Goldman Rubin and illustrated by Bill Farnsworth. Holiday House, Thomas Allen & Son. 2011. $10.99 ages 9 and up

"On the evening of October 20, 1943, Irena's aunt and Janina Grabowska, a dear friend and courier, came to visit. It was Irena's name day, and the women stayed up talking until around three o'clock in the morning. Banging on the front door awakened them. It was the Gestapo, the German secret police! Irena immediately tried to throw the precious roll of names out the window."

Irena Sendler did not set out to be a hero. She just did what she thought she should do to help the children who were trapped in the Warsaw Ghetto during the worst of times in the Second World War. When the Germans brought Poland under their rule at the beginning of that war, Irena quickly joined the Polish resistance. Her need to help the Jewish people was strong. She knew the risks she was taking.

Along with others, she disguised herself as a nurse; they were allowed to help within the walls of the ghetto. In 1942, as a member of Zegota, she was put in charge of the Department of Help for Jewish Children. In that role, showing unbelievable courage and with no fear for her own safety, she helped to secure safe passage for almost four hundred children, using an ingenious array of escape plans. 
She used the sewers, the ambulances and fire trucks that entered the Jewish compound, even a carpenter's tool box, often drugging the children to keep them still and quiet as they passed right by the Nazi guards. She did not promise that their children would be safe, but many parents opted to let her take them in hopes they would survive and escape the death camps.

It was an ordeal to find placements for the many children who needed help, but she did her best. She left them in convents, with willing Polish families and even in orphanages to keep them safe. All were given false names, and certificates of birth. Irena kept careful records, despite the inherent danger; all with hope that families would one day be reunited. She protected the records as best she could. Arrested by the Nazis in 1943, she faced certain death, until a large amount of money fell into the right hands and she was released.

At the end of the war, she was alive and her records were handed over to the Jewish Committee. Because of those carefully preserved papers, some Polish children were able to find relatives following the war.

Irena always maintained that she was no hero. Rather, 'the real heroes were the Jewish children and their mothers, who gave away those most dear to their hearts to unknown persons.'

A list of resources is helpful and might lead interested readers to find out more about this remarkable woman. Irena died in 2008, age 98. This book, with stunning oil paintings by Bill Farnsworth, is a fitting tribute to a woman of great compassion and courage.

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