Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Irena Sendler and the Children of the Warsaw Ghetto by Susan Goldman Rubin, illustrated by Bill Farnsworth

I know I've done a number of nonfiction books about Irena Sendler or fiction in which she played a part.  It seems to me that while they all tell the basic story of how Irena entered the Warsaw Ghetto during WWII to help the Jewish children there, they all add new information about this remarkable woman.  Irena Sendler and the Children of the Warsaw Ghetto is not exception, and is filled with information for the older picture book readers.

After the merciless bombing of Warsaw by the German Luftwaffe in 1939, Irena, then a deeply religious young Catholic social worker, did her best to help the wounded and needy.  Because of bombings all over Poland, Warsaw began to see an increase in refugees arriving and needing help. Unfortunately, the Germans also arrived, occupying what remained of Warsaw.  Concerned, Irena joined the Polish resistance movement.  With a crew made up of her girlfriends, Irena helped care for the Jews in Warsaw, targets of the Nazi occupiers, providing food and false documents so they could get help.

In 1940, as the Germans rounded up more and more Jews, forcing them to live in increasingly cramped quarters behind the brick and barbed wire wall they were forced to build and that formed the Warsaw Ghetto, conditions quickly deteriorated. Capitalizing on the Nazi's fear of epidemics, Irena and her friends dressed as a nurses and entered the ghetto.  Inside, people, including children, were begging for food, sleeping in doorways and dying in the streets.

In 1942, the Nazis began to round up Jews for deportation to Treblinka, a death camp.  Irena realized it was time to do something about saving the Jewish children in the ghetto.  But how?

Using the code name "Sister Jolanta,"  Irena joined an underground organization, code named Zegota, As part of this group, Irena, along with trusted friends, commanded the Department of Help for Jewish Children.  But the group knew that good intentions wouldn't rescue children, that each rescue had to be minutely planned and carried out down to the smallest detail.  And one by one, Irena and her helpers managed to convince the parents of almost 400 Jewish babies and children to allow her to smuggle them out of the ghetto and to places of safety - with no guarantees.

Irena kept meticulous records of who the children were and where they were sent.  Amazingly, after she was captured and tortured by the Nazis, Irena never gave anything away.  And just before her execution, the resistance, with some costly inside help, managed to rescue her.  Sadly, her days of working for the resistance were over, as she also had to go into hiding, in a safe house she at used for Jewish children in the Warsaw Zoo.  The list of the children's real identities were buried in a glass jar under a tree in a friend's and survived the war and was turned over to the Jewish Committee.    

Each time I read a nonfiction work by Susan Goldman Rubin, I am amazed at how much information she is able to include without overwhelming the reader with too many facts and dates, but giving them just what they need to understand the events she is writing about.  And Irena Sendler and the Children of the Warsaw Ghetto, a picture book for older readers, is not exception.

Written in a very readable documentary style, readers will feel the tension and danger these brave people in the Polish resistance faced every day, the indecision of parents asked to trust Irena with the lives of their children, and the confusion of some of the older kids.  What seems like the unimaginable, becomes real in this well-done, well-researched book, perhaps because Rubin included the words not only of Irena Sendler, but also of some of the babies or children who survived.  I think that's what gives this a sense of reality that some of accounts of Irena Sendler lack.

Those were such dark days and the oil-painted illustrations by Bill Farnsworth reflect them perfectly. Farnsworth's illustrations force the reader to look more closely at what is going on and when you do, you realize how well he has captured the danger and tension of those terrible days.

Be sure to read the Afterword for more information about Irena Sendler's life after WWII, when the Communist Government of Poland suppressed any knowledge of what she had done.  There is also lots of good back matter for anyone who wants to explore her amazingly courageous work further.

The publisher, Holiday House, has made available a very useful Educator's Guide that you can download HERE

This book is recommended for readers age 8+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL

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