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Irena's War


James D. Shipman

Rating: ****

Irena Sendler, a Polish Resistance Fighter in Poland in World War II helped many orphaned Jewish children survive and escape the Warsaw Ghetto in the face of horrendous brutality and near-overwhelming adversity. Despite being captured and tortured by the Nazis for four months, she refused to reveal any details of her associates.

Irena’s War weaves the true story of Irena Sendler into a gripping and absorbing novel. Research into Irena’s life and actions combined with the detail of this corner of the war is meticulous. As is the wonderfully realised setting of the early 1940s. It's subtle with period detail and thoroughly transports the reader.

From the very beginning, Irena is passionate, emotive and convincing. She is not without flaws, however, and can be infuriating in her stubbornness. Her tenacity and refusal to take no for an answer was both her strength and, at times, her weakness.

Notwithstanding, there is a woodenness in her relationships that makes them a little flat. There did not seem to be much chemistry between her and Adam and I found him slightly unlikeable. I also was intrigued by the difficult and clearly complex relationship with her Mother and would have liked this explored further or given some backstory.

Contrastingly, I thought Klaus, the fictional character, was the most interesting and well-defined. There is no judgement passed on him in the narrative and this was a skilful move, enabling the reader to really consider exactly who he is; does he have a conscience? The scene with the glut of cake at his daughter’s birthday party was so painfully ironic it was almost hard to read.

It is difficult to imagine what Irena and her compatriots witnessed. Their struggles, sacrifices and constant fear of death are vividly brought to life and the book reminds us of the utterly harrowing futility of war. The scenes with the orphanage children and the sewers are almost beyond rational comprehension and are as compelling as they are awful.

Irena’s War is a powerful and moving account of one woman’s refusal to capitulate. Highly recommended.

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