Book Review: Irena, Book One: Wartime Ghetto by Jean-David Morvan, Séverine Tréfouël, & David Evrard (2019)

Friday, August 9th, 2019

A book we need now more than ever.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for anti-Semitic violence.)

Irena Sendlerowa (maiden name Krzyżanowska) was born on February 10, 1910 in Warsaw, Poland. Shew grew up in nearby Otwock, which was home to a large Jewish community. Her father Stanisław was a physician who treated everyone, regardless of their ethnicity or ability to pay. He contracted typhus in the line of duty, and died when Irena was just seven. Despite being raised by a single mother, Irena attended college, studying law and literature at the University of Warsaw. She was a socialist who was outspoken in support of her Jewish classmates. Identified as a leftist, she was denied employment in the Warsaw school system.

Instead, Irena was working for the Social Welfare Department when Germany invaded Poland. Here she was uniquely positioned to provide help to Poland’s most marginalized citizens. Irena’s department was allowed access to the Warsaw Ghetto, ostensibly to conduct sanitary inspections and help prevent the outbreak and spread of epidemics. Here she leveraged her position to make life a little more bearable for the ghetto’s 4,000 Jewish residents, by smuggling in food, clothing, and medicine – with the help of a large and ever-expanding group of family, friends, and colleagues, of course.

Irena also began smuggling out people, including dozens of children and babies, which she placed in a network of foster homes, orphanages, and religious sanctuaries. She diligently recorded the given name, fake name, and new address of each child, so that they could be reunited with their families after the war was over. In order to avoid incriminating herself in the event of a search – and making it easier for the Gestapo to find the missing children – Irena placed the names in jars, which she buried. Sadly, while her records survived the war, most of their would-be recipients did not. A majority of the children Irena and her network rescued – up to 2,500, by some estimates – were orphaned.

Perhaps the most astonishing part of Irena’s story is that she was captured, interrogated, and sentenced to death in 1943. Despite repeated torture, she did not name her co-conspirators or the people they rescued. She escaped when the Żegota, a Polish resistance organization with which she’d been working, bribed a German guard. Instead of giving up or fleeing the country, Irena resumed her subversive activities, albeit under an assumed name and new occupation: Klara Dąbrowska, nurse. Irena died of natural causes in 2008; she was 98 years old.

Irena, Book One: Wartime Ghetto covers the events through Irena’s capture by and escape from the Gestapo. To describe it as “powerful” is a gross understatement. It’s a force, though not quite like Irena. I imagine very few things could come that close. (Later in life, Irena rarely gave interviews, and vehemently insisted that she hated the word “hero” and did not consider herself one. If she wasn’t, then they simply don’t exist.)

While rooted firmly in fact, the narrative does contain some fictional and downright fantastical elements. For example, Morvan identifies the murder of a young boy by a sadistic SS officer as the impetus for Irena’s human smuggling; yet Wiki says that she began her operations when some friends were trapped on the Jewish side of the wall.

Still, some of the more surreal embellishments, like the ghosts (of Nethanial and the other murdered Jews, as well as Irena’s father, always guiding her towards what’s right) and Nethanial’s loyal and prescient dog, are inspired and will bring you to tears.

Irena’s Children just moved higher on my TBR list; and, imho, a desire to learn more is usually a pretty good indicator of a comic book or tv show’s success.

The artwork has a Dickensian quality to it. It wasn’t my favorite at first, but it grew on me. It suits the mood and content of the story perfectly.

As I write this review, supporters of Drumpf’s border policy – which includes ramped up ICE raids across the country this weekend – are splitting hairs over terminology, questioning whether the “dog pounds” along the border qualify as “concentration camps.” I am reminded of that older woman who showed up to a rally for women’s rights bearing a sign that proclaims “I can’t believe I still have to protest this fucking shit.” I wonder what Irena would do if she lived in Texas or New York or Minnesota in June of 2019.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)