Based on the gripping true story of an unlikely Polish resistance fighter who helped save thousands of Jewish children from the Warsaw ghetto during World War II, bestselling author James D. Shipman’s Irena’s War is a heart-pounding novel of courage in action, helmed by an extraordinary and unforgettable protagonist.
September 1939: The conquering Nazis swarm through Warsaw as social worker Irena Sendler watches in dread from her apartment window. Already, the city’s poor go hungry. Irena wonders how she will continue to deliver food and supplies to those who need it most, including the forbidden Jews. The answer comes unexpectedly.
Dragged from her home in the night, Irena is brought before a Gestapo agent, Klaus Rein, who offers her a position running the city’s soup kitchens, all to maintain the illusion of order. Though loath to be working under the Germans, Irena learns there are ways to defy her new employer–including forging documents so that Jewish families receive food intended for Aryans. As Irena grows bolder, her interactions with Klaus become more fraught and perilous.
Klaus is unable to prove his suspicions against Irena–yet. But once Warsaw’s half-million Jews are confined to the ghetto, awaiting slow starvation or the death camps, Irena realizes that providing food is no longer enough. Recruited by the underground Polish resistance organization Zegota, she carries out an audacious scheme to rescue Jewish children. One by one, they are smuggled out in baskets and garbage carts, or led through dank sewers to safety–every success raising Klaus’s ire. Determined to quell the uprising, he draws Irena into a cat-and-mouse game that will test her in every way–and where the slightest misstep could mean not just her own death, but the slaughter of those innocents she is so desperate to save.
The fact that this is based on a true story only makes it more gripping and jaw-droppingly addictive.
Irena is a strong and determined woman, but she is not without her flaws. Her determination is often misconstrued (by her mother) as stubbornness and defiance, but always her intentions are the best. Her goal at the outset is to maintain the supply of food to her fellow Poles once the Germans invade. And she refuses to accept that Polish Jews are any less worthy, but she is fighting an uphill battle.
Her path regularly crosses with Klaus, an SS Officer, who is put in charge of the region, and for whom she is the eternal thorn in the side. Once the ghetto is built and her Jewish friends and fellow citizens are installed behind a solid wall, she pushes her boss, Jan, to get her a pass into the ghetto. The only way in is as a medical observer, to check on the infection rates within. Of course, Irena wins him over, using fair means and foul, but either way she now has access to the ghetto. It is there she finds her friends working in the hospital and orphanage. Seeing the conditions faced by the children, she has to get them out.
Her efforts have not gone unnoticed by the local resistance who bring her in to discuss future plans to save as many as they can. As the situation deteriorates and residents of the ghetto are rounded up and relocated to Treblinka, the need to save the children becomes ever more critical.
By now, Irena is under pressure from all sides. Some consider her work in food distribution as being work for the Germans, even her Jewish friends come to that conclusion. The Germans – Klaus – see her as a potential pawn, to make it look as though they are treating the Poles well …until he realises she is working against him. Proving it, though, is a different matter and Irena comes close to arrest many times. None of that stops her though; she may fear for her life but she fears for the lives of others more. Remarkable!
Tense times lie ahead, and the story only gets stronger as Irena ploughs on through the machine that is the Nazi regime. She faces losses and wins but doesn’t stop – her resolve is breath-taking.
This is not an easy book to read at times, since the reality of war is not hidden away or glossed over. Being based on true events, it hits home with great impact. As a work of historical fiction, it feels very real and incredibly scary. We should be praising women like Irena more; she saved many more people than Schindler yet has gone unnoticed. Until now. This is a powerful story that bridges fact and fiction beautifully. I would highly recommend it to readers of WWII historical fiction.
My sincere thanks go to Kensington Books and NetGalley for this e-ARC. My review is given voluntarily and with absolute pleasure.