A review of Rubin, Susan, Irena Sendler and the Children of the Warsaw Ghetto. New York: Holiday House, 2011
“I was taught by my father that when someone is drowning, you don’t ask if they can swim. You just jump in and help.” Irena Sendler was never anyone to brag—she always said that she simply did what she had to do. What she did, however, was nothing short of extraordinary. A young Catholic Polish social worker from Warsaw, she saved the lives of at least 2,000 Jewish children, smuggling them out of the Warsaw Ghetto, an unbearably overcrowded, unsanitary, and dangerous section of the city the Nazis sealed off during their World War II occupation. Surely children ought to know of this heroic woman—that is what this book sets out to do.
Susan Rubin drew upon many sources to create an accurate chronicle of Irena Sendler, using dialogue to excellent effect. The bibliography, in fact, is worthy of a much longer book, even one for adult readers. In describing Irena, Rubin tells of the many acts of defiance her subject committed, giving the reader a very human portrayal. The excellent illustrations by Bill Farnsworth enhance the biography, making it come alive visually for young readers.
Of particular interest to young readers are Irena’s activities in secret, underground organizations, including Zegota. Code names, forged documents, smuggling, and underground escape routes highlight the dangers Irena and her colleagues faced and make for interesting reading for young readers. Most remarkable was the rescue of a six-month-old infant in a wooden carpenter’s box. That baby, Elzbieta Ficowska, would grow up to become one of Irena’s closest and most trusted friends.
Persuading Jewish mothers to give up their young children was the most heart-rending part of Irena’s job. How she kept careful notes of each child and stored them in a jar is one of the highlights of Ms. Rubin’s book. And the author pays the ultimate homage to Irena by allowing her to state that she did not consider herself a hero—she did what she had to do. The real heroes, said Irena, were the mothers who gave up their babies, the Polish families who took them in, and the children themselves.
It is hard to imagine a more important role model for children than a humanitarian who devoted her live to saving children.