Irena Sendler, the real-life woman who inspired my novel Irena’s War, was a Polish Catholic social worker who saved 2,500 Jewish children in Warsaw during World War II. She wasn’t a superhero. She didn’t have special resources or powers. She wasn’t particularly well connected. She was a working-class woman in a bureaucratic position with the Polish government. Through strength of will, she found a way, within her employment and the position she held in Warsaw society, to orchestrate the salvation of more than twice the number of people as Oskar Schindler by sneaking Jewish children out of the Warsaw ghetto and hiding them, with false paperwork, among Catholic families.
Most Americans have never heard of her because her story was kept a secret until decades after the war. What was life like for Irena in occupied Warsaw? What did she eat? What were conditions like? Her life was a strange mixture of normal and surreal, familiar and fearful.
Irena would still have been able to travel around Warsaw during the war, although the Germans severely restricted movement from city to city or through the countryside. She would have walked many miles every day, primarily from home to work and to the market, although there was a trolley system that Poles were able to utilize. However, this would not have changed drastically for her from before the war. Few Poles owned automobiles, and Warsaw citizens would have primarily lived in multi-floor apartment buildings and primarily moved around on foot.
Irena was a middle-class social worker. The apartment she shared with her mother was in a working-class neighborhood. The flat had two bedrooms. Furniture would likely have been secondhand and sparse, but she would have been comfortable, and they would have had running water, plumbing, and electric or coal heat. Entertainment at home would largely have been reading. If Irena had a radio, she would have enjoyed classical music. The news, heavily censored by the Germans, would have had carried little in the way of truthful information, and it was strictly forbidden to listen to foreign news broadcasts.
Even in wartime, Irena would have had opportunities for recreation outside. Warsaw was one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. She could walk along the Vistula River that cut through the city, moving back and forth across the many bridges. A trip to the eastern side of Warsaw would have brought her to Praga and the traditional market there. Warsaw was filled with beautiful gardens, such as the Krasinski Gardens. She would, however, have to be careful to be home on time, as the Germans enforced a strict curfew.
A real struggle for Irena would have been clothing. Essentially, Poles would have lived through the six years of war from 1939 to 1945 with the clothing they already possessed. Irena, as a middle-class social worker, would have owned only a few dresses and perhaps a single wool overcoat. As the years passed, her garments would have grown increasingly threadbare, her shoes worn through.
For Irena, along with the average Pole, food was still readily available, if reduced in variety and, at times, quantity. Meat was in limited supply because the Germans were requisitioning much of it, but bread, vegetables, wine, and dessert were still relatively available. She might have made pierogi, a Polish favorite, which is dumplings made with a sausage or other meat filling, but also sometimes with mushrooms and sauerkraut or even fruit. For breakfast or lunch, she might have whipped up some Polskie naleśniki, or polish pancakes, which are thin and served either savory with cheese or sweet with powdered sugar and fruits. Several times a week, Irena might have made Barszcz czerwony, the Polish variety of borscht, a soup made with beets and potatoes, which would have still been readily available. Irena would have supplemented her meals with simple peasant bread and, to drink, perhaps vodka, beer, or miod pitny, “a taste of honey,” which in English is mead. For dessert, she might have made a sweet roll like drożdzówka or visited the Gogolewski cake shop to pick up some napoleonka and paczki. Napoleonka is a cream pie made with layers of puff pastry. Paczki is a pastry like a doughnut but without the hole.
Irena was a hero and a savior, but she still had to live an everyday life. For her, and for most Poles, life in occupied Warsaw, particularly in the first few years of the war, would have gone on—the mundane and the familiar, mixed with uncertainty and terror. We may hope and pray that in our nation we will never live through the same.
About Irena’s War
Based on the gripping true story of Irena Sendler, a Polish nurse and resistance fighter who smuggled thousands of Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto during WWII in German-occupied Poland, Irena’s War by acclaimed author James D. Shipman 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.
James D. Shipman is the best-selling author of six historical novels: Irena’s War, Task Force Baum, Constantinopolis, Going Home, It Is Well, and A Bitter Rain. He was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest and began publishing short stories and poems while earning a degree in history from the University of Washington and a law degree from Gonzaga University. He opened his own law firm in 2004 and remains a practicing attorney. An avid reader, especially of historical nonfiction, Shipman lives in Washington State and enjoys traveling and spending time with his family. Visit James Shipman online at James-Shipman.com.