Kansas teenagers rediscover a forgotten Holocaust heroine in this moving historical drama, based on a true story.
Irena Sendler, a Catholic welfare bureaucrat in German-occupied Poland, saved thousands of Jewish children during World War II by organizing a network that smuggled them out of the Warsaw Ghetto to live in convents, orphanages and private homes. Mayer’s superb novelization of her exploits elevates social work to the intensity of a spy thriller. Posing as a nurse, Sendler carries youngsters out in boxes and bags, hides them under soiled dressings and piles of corpses headed for the cemetery or secrets them away in a truck equipped with a dog trained to bark over their cries. She coolly bribes and bluffs her way past guards, though discovery means execution. In the midst of this deadly caper, Irena registers the horrors of the ghetto—the pitiless struggle for food, the families that quietly die off from starvation and the anguish of parents who realize they can save their children only by giving them up forever. (Sendler buried lists of children’s names and locations in jars, hoping to reunite them with parents, but most of their families perished.) Writing in vivid but restrained prose, Mayer describes this agonizing situation with understated pathos. In one spare, heartbreaking scene, a mother flings her infant blindly over the ghetto wall to the “Aryan” side as the last Jews are rounded up for transit to death camps. The author frames Irena’s saga inside an account of three Kansas high-school girls who wrote the titular playlet about her in 2000 as a class project that became an international sensation. As the teens try to imagine Irena’s unfathomably different circumstances, they find that her life resonates with their experiences of loss and shattered families. Mayer’s narrative eventually loses its way amid the hoopla over the Irena Sendler Project, but his rendition of Irena’s story has an inspirational power of its own.
A gripping real-life tale of extraordinary courage that had an enduring impact.