Another World War II novel about the Warsaw ghetto. That’s what I thought when I received a copy of this book for review. And while it’s true that much of the background is familiar, every person who lived through this historical horror has their own story. Irena Sendler was a Polish resistance fighter who helped save thousands of Jewish children. Her story is one of courage under unimaginable pressure.
When the Nazis come to Poland in 1939, Irena is already working to distribute food to the poor. Unbelievably, the Nazis offer her a position to keep doing what she’s been doing, running a soup kitchen, in order to make everything seem orderly and normal. Irena hates working for the Nazis, especially when her friends pull away from her because of it. She finds a way, though, to forge documents and feed Jewish families. The creation of the ghetto makes Irena’s job harder. Rather than give up, however, she finds a way to visit the imprisoned Jewish people and bring them food. She also begins to work more actively to help orphaned Jewish children escape. The Nazis suspect Irena, and they come close to catching her more than once. Not all her schemes are successful, but she does rescue 2,500 children.
In the first pages of the novel, Irena narrowly misses being bombed in the street. Rather than return to check on her ill mother, she continues to work. At that point, we’ve met the mother but have no clear idea what Irena’s job is. Her action seems odd. As the story progresses, Irena’s motivations become clear and the reader grows to admire her. It’s difficult to stay the course when your friends suspect you, people you don’t trust offer to help you, and the enemy is actively watching you. Irena’s bravery and determination are admirable. Irena is not the sort of hero who charges forth in a blaze of righteous glory. She has many flaws that make her human and cause her grief, and that gives this novel a gritty reality.
James D. Shipman is the bestselling author of six historical novels, Irena’s War, Task Force Baum, Constantinopolis, Going Home, It Is Well, and A Bitter Rain. He was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest and began publishing short stories and poems while earning a degree in history from the University of Washington and a law degree from Gonzaga University. He opened his own law firm in 2004 and remains a practicing attorney. An avid reader, especially of historical nonfiction, Shipman also enjoys traveling and spending time with his family. Visit him at James Shipman.com.