New novel tells story of a disease inspector helping Jews in Nazi prisons

 Every time I finish reviewing a book about the Holocaust, I resolve, “Never again.” I will not relive, at least in my imagination, the horrors of the ultimate Jewish – or human – nightmare, ever again.

And then some publisher throws a book through the transom. Maybe it’s my ever-growing senility, perhaps I’m a secret masochist. Whatever it is, I get hooked.
Irena’s War: A Novel fits nicely into that pattern. 
Gestapo big-wig Klaus Hauptmann comes to Warsaw to consolidate Nazi rule. He is a monster who one moment is loving and kind to his wife and daughter and the next is unspeakably cruel to others.
Once, he went to check on German soldiers who had forced 14 Polish citizens, all professional people, to leave their apartments in the middle of the night and congregate outside. 
Hauptmann made sure that all was done according to orders, even reprimanding a soldier for not being polite to the prisoners, and then told the officer in charge to shoot them all.
Irena Sendler, a historical figure, was a Polish social worker. Her specialty was organizing food programs for the poor, helping her fellow Polish Catholics. 

Hauptmann insisted she continue feeding the poor under the new regime. She agreed, but surreptitiously and at great personal risk, created fictitious Polish families and used the food the Nazis allocated for them to feed Jewish families, which were not eligible for food rations.
Eventually, to see the love of her life, Adam, who was imprisoned with all his fellow Jews in the ghetto and to help those wretched people, Irena became an inspector for communicable diseases in that open-air prison.
Her first trip to the ghetto shocked her: “There were starving people everywhere as she walked along. Worse yet were the dead. Every block there was at least one body lying on the pavement, naked except for newspapers covering them along with a thin layer of snow. The pedestrians ignored these corpses as if they didn’t exist, but Irena could not stop staring at them.” 
She worked with the Polish Underground to save Jewish children when the Nazis decided to liquidate the ghetto and murder all its inhabitants.
She organized rescues of children using the sewer system to bring the kids from the ghetto to the outside, personally saving a child of a friend by taking her through the sewers. The descriptions of what she and the child endured – similar to what the other guides and their groups of 10 children each encountered – was terrifying. She and the Underground saved 2,500 Jewish children from certain death.
Irena was betrayed, arrested and tortured at Gestapo headquarters in Warsaw. The Nazis wanted the names and whereabouts of the Underground leaders and the children. She refused.
Again, the descriptions are painful to read. “Irena woke. Her eyes were puffed, and she could feel the pain in her cheeks. The fire in her legs was worse. She lay on the floor of her cell, her clothes in rags….
“How long had she endured his [the Gestapo chief’s] torture? She couldn’t keep track of the time. Months had passed, that was certain. She had no idea how she had endured.” 
I’m of two minds when it comes to history-fiction hybrids like Irena’s War. On the one hand, they bring historical epochs to life much better than scholarly accounts, and educate people who might not read about important events in history books.
But these are essentially works of fiction. Because this is a novel, the author is not as obligated to stick to the truth as a historian would. After all, the main purpose of a novel is to tell a good story. Inevitably, therefore, we leave books like these with strong impressions and ideas that may or may not be accurate.
With that said, I must admit that this is an extremely well-written, interesting account of a heroic woman whose exploits deserve more exposure.
Actually, “interesting” is not the word, “haunting” is. The images of ghetto life are so strongly constructed, the characters so well drawn that I found myself worrying about their survival. It was hard for me to look away. And I desperately wanted to.
So, yes, fellow senile seniors and masochists, Irena’s War is for us. 
The writer’s memoir, Figs and Alligators: An American Immigrant’s Life in Israel in the 1970s and 1980s (Chickadee Prince Books) can be purchased online.
By James D. Shipman
Kensington Books
360 pages; $15.95


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