Sunday, February 07, 2021

Irena's War by James D. Shipman, his new novel about Polish WWII heroine Irena Sendler

Propulsive and intense, Irena’s War provides a front-row seat to the transformation of a Polish social worker into one of World War II’s most admirable heroines, with her efforts in rescuing over 2000 Jewish children from the Holocaust. 

In September 1939, the Germans overtake Warsaw, but Irena Sendler isn’t deterred in her work of distributing food to the city’s starving poor. She takes risks early on, temporarily alienating her Jewish friends when the Germans ask her to continue her work on a larger scale. “She was going to beat them, but in order to do so, she had to be in the game,” she reasons.

As restrictions tighten on Warsaw’s Jews, who are forbidden social services, Irena fudges paperwork to feed them; after hundreds of thousands are forced into a walled ghetto, she feels pressured to give up but finds ways of reaching them, at great danger to herself. Irena grows especially touched by the plight of the children and, with support of the resistance organization Żegota, she organizes a system of moving them out of the ghetto, into Aryan Warsaw, and into safe spaces.

The novel dexterously conveys Irena’s compassion, toughness, and the effect her uncompromising stubbornness had on her loved ones. It’s impossible for her to save everyone, but this knowledge doesn’t make individual failures any less heartbreaking. Periodic dips into the viewpoint of Gestapo officer Klaus Rein (a fictional character) show firsthand what Irena is up against. It’s chilling to witness how he mentally separates his life as a devoted family man with his horrific actions.

The plot lacks background on Irena’s difficult relationship with her mother and her growing romance with a Jewish friend, Adam; we experience their interactions in-the-moment without knowing the full history. Nonetheless, the story is riveting throughout and will leave readers marveling at the real-life Irena’s courage and accomplishments.

Irena's War was published by Kensington last December.  I reviewed it for the Historical Novels Review. The subject matter makes for hard reading at times, but Irena Sendler's story is very much worth knowing. She was recognized as "Righteous Among the Nations" by the State of Israel for her work in saving Jewish children; she died in 2008 at age 98.  There's currently a Kindle deal running ($1.99) on, if you're interested in getting your own copy.

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