Yom HaShoah, the annual Jewish holiday commemorating the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust, begins this year on the evening of May 1. In honor of the holiday, I am reviewing the newest in a large number of picture books that have been published about what some Jews refer to as the Shoah, which means catastrophe or utter destruction in Hebrew.
Susan Goldman Rubin has written a number of different picture books telling of different aspects of the Holocaust. Her newest tells the story of Polish rescuer Irena Sendler, a courageous young Polish social worker who conspired to rescue nearly 400 children from the Warsaw ghetto during the darkest days of World War II.
When the Germans took over Poland in 1939, Irena immediately joined the Polish resistance movement, and began efforts to help the Jews in particular, who were soon forced into a ghetto and required to construct an 11 1/2 foot wall around it. Anyone helping a Jew escape could be shot; however, Irena and her friends, disguised as nurses, were allowed into the ghetto to help with sanitation. In 1942, Irena joined Zegota, a Polish underground organization founded to help Jews. She was given command of the Department of Help for Jewish Children.
Irena became expert in spiriting children out of the ghetto, sometimes through the sewers, sometimes hidden under floorboards in an ambulance or hidden in fire trucks, right under the noses of the Nazis. Even babies, drugged to prevent them from crying, were smuggled out, sometimes in wooden boxes. Although Irena couldn't guarantee the children's safety, many parents opted to take a chance that at least someone from their family would survive by entrusting their children to her care.
Once out of the ghetto, Irena had to find places to hide the children, often in Catholic convents and orphanages; sometimes Polish foster families could be found for the very youngest children, and all received Polish names and false birth and baptismal certificates.
Despite the dangers, Irena kept records, hoping to be able to reunite families after the war, and was even able to save them when she was finally arrested by the Gestapo in 1943. Right before she was due to be executed, she was let go, due to a large bribe paid by a fellow Pole.
When Warsaw was finally liberated, Irena had managed to survive, along with her records, which were given to the Jewish Committee. Although many of the children had no relatives left to rejoin, some were able to find their families again due to her record-keeping.
An afterword explains that under the communist government which followed the end of World War II, Irena's story went untold for many years. When the communist regime collapsed in 1989, Irena's story became public and she received many awards and recognition. Like many rescuers, Irena maintained that what she had done was neither heroic nor extraordinary. "A hero is someone doing extraordinary things. What I did was not extraordinary. It was a normal thing to do...the real heroes were the Jewish children and their mothers, who gave away those most dear to their hearts to unknown persons."
This inspirational book also includes a list of resources, including books, articles, videos, testimonies, and more, as well as notes and an index. The book is handsomely illustrated with moving oil paintings by artist Bill Farnsworth in which our heroine, Irena, is often bathed in an angelic golden light.
An educator's guide is available at the publisher's website.
A documentary about Sendler's life entitled Irena Sendler: In the Name of their Mothers, will be broadcast nationally on PBS affiliates on May 1, 2011, its US premiere. The documentary features some of Sendler's last interviews before she died in 2008 at the age of 98. Check your local station for the air times.