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The Book of the Week is “Irena’s Children, The Extraordinary Woman Who Saved Thousands of Children From the Warsaw Ghetto” by Tilar J. Mazzeo, adapted by Mary Cronk Farrell, published in 2016.
At the start of WWII, Irena worked as a senior administrator in a Warsaw social welfare office that oversaw soup kitchens. A socialist, she was politically active. Less than two weeks after invading Poland in the first week of September of 1939, the Germans surrounded Warsaw. Nazis imposed martial law and abducted professionals they feared might influence Poles to fight back– teachers, priests, landowners, politicians, etc.
Irena became a member of the Polish Resistance, a secret social network who helped save the lives of Jews. She and her staff fabricated statistics, interviews and compiled lists of (fictional) non-Jewish names of social-program recipients in order to funnel necessities to the Jews.
In autumn 1940, Hitler assembled a committee of Jews to impose anti-Semitic laws to strip Jews of their assets and dignity. Eventually, the victims were banned from, or had draconian restrictions placed on them at work, school, in the streets and practically everywhere else, and the German authorities brainwashed all non-Jews into socially ostracizing Jews.
In October 1940, Nazis herded Jews into a ghetto– forced Jews to move into and live in a small geographic sector of Warsaw. The sector was sealed off via a wall. Germans claimed they were segregating the Jews to stem the spread of typhus. Profiteers had a field day, via the usual price-gouging, bribery, protection-money, etc. Profiteers included but were hardly limited to landlords, government officials, sellers of work-permits, and food smugglers. The ghettoizing didn’t make sense, of course, because the crowded conditions increased the spread of disease! In November 1940, a smear campaign sealed the deal that the Jews spread diseases.
These days, propaganda campaigns reach the masses at the speed of light, and whoever can spread their messages more convincingly and prolifically, wins the game. More specifically in the United States, politicians do this through their own communications, and through the media, driven by money. They give stuff away for free (via their donors) only insofar as they think doing so will benefit them in the long-term. For the last few decades, the American government has brainwashed the people into socially ostracizing each other for their political views. It is better for the majority of the population to be divided (as long as violence does not reach the point of civil war), than for it to devolve into the chaos of a cult of personality under a Hitler or Stalin.
Anyway, Irena, a Catholic, risked her life (!) to save the lives of as many Jewish children as she could. She sewed vials of typhus vaccine, toys and money into her clothing to hide them from the Nazis when she entered the ghetto with fake papers saying she was a disease-control worker.
Garbage, vermin and sewage began to accumulate in the yards of the ghetto, as the neighborhoods lacked indoor plumbing and modern sanitation services. “Each morning, the dead lined the streets, piled naked and covered with old newsprint and stones.” People stole the clothing of, and rats gnawed at, the corpses. Luckily, the Nazis were germophobes, so they usually allowed Irena to pass through their checkpoints with minimal harassment.
All identity papers stated one’s religion, and food-ration cards allotted the Jews 184 calories a day. Jews in the Warsaw ghetto were forced to wear a blue star (rather than a yellow one) on their clothing. Winter 1941 was especially freezing. To add injury to injury, bombs rained down on Warsaw, bringing more deaths and destruction.
In January 1942, after a few Gestapo officers died of disease, a senior official ordered the roundup of street urchins who were, or were perceived to be Jewish (those not checked for circumcision were judged only on facial features– like the victims of genocide in Rwanda). Many urchins were orphans. Irena and others smuggled necessities to them, and helped them sneak out of or into the ghetto (whatever the circumstances dictated), when they couldn’t be placed in orphanages via fake papers.
Read the book to learn of the ways the Polish Resistance creatively outsmarted the Nazis’ control and dominance over the Polish people, and a wealth of details about Irena’s selfless, clever activities to save lives (hint: one of her friends remarked, “The Germans… were such an orderly, rule-following people, that they couldn’t imagine anyone would do something so outrageously brazen as have fifty Jewish people coming and going in front of them.”), and learn the population estimates of Jews and non-Jews before and after the war.