About the Author
Tilar J. Mazzeo is the New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle bestselling author of books that include The Widow Clicquot, The Secret of Chanel No. 5 and the forthcoming The Hotel on Place Vendome (all from HarperCollins). Her course of creative non-fiction (Great Courses) is widely distributed and has made her a prominent teacher of writing in non-fiction genres in the US. The Clara C. Piper Associate Professor of English at Colby College, she divides her time between coastal Maine, New York City and Saanichton, British Columbia, where she lives with her husband and step-children.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Irena’s Children CHAPTER 1
Becoming Irena Sendler
In Yiddish folk tales, the story of Poland begins at dusk on a still summer night. At the edge of the sky, the forest grows dark. A weary family sets down their belongings in the grassy verge along a long road and wonders: How long will we wander until we reach a homeland? They are waiting for a sign, which the ancients tell them will come, but they do not expect it this evening. Their feet are sore, and someone, homesick and forlorn, weeps silently.
Then, from the quiet of the forest, a bird sings out two beautiful notes. They are the very notes for which the family knows they have been waiting. The bird chirps, Po lin, po lin. They are the words, in their language, which mean Live here. Here, in a place they call forever afterward Poland.
Where is this village at the heart of Poland? No one knows. But it might have been a place very much like the small riverside village of Otwock, set on the edge of a great pine forest fifteen-odd miles southeast of Warsaw. By the nineteenth century, when the words of this Yiddish folk tale were recorded, Otwock was already the site of a long-established Hasidic Jewish community.
And it was not only the Hasidic Jews who were finding a home in Otwock by the end of the nineteenth century. In fact, by the 1890s, Otwock was quickly becoming famous in a quiet way. In 1893, Dr. Józef Marian Geisler established a spa and clinic there for the treatment of tuberculosis. Pleasantly situated on the right bank of the Vistula River, surrounded by tall trees, the fresh air at Otwock was thought to be particularly salubrious. In this pastoral setting, dozens of sprawling wooden villas soon sprang up, built in an alpine style, with large open-air porches and latticework trellises along the eaves of all the nicest houses. The village became a fashionable choice for health treatments. In 1895, just two years later, a certain Józef Przygoda opened the first sanatorium for Jews, because Jews and Poles in those days largely lived by choice in separate worlds, and that clinic also quickly became popular. Indeed, before too long, Otwock, home to a large impoverished Jewish community, became a favorite summer retreat for the upper-middle-class Jews from Warsaw and from other smaller towns across central Poland.
Irena Stanisława Krzyżanowska—for that was her maiden name—was not born in Otwock, although Otwock would be in the years that followed an important part of her story. She had been born on February 15, 1910, at the Holy Spirit Catholic Hospital in Warsaw, where her father, Stanisław Henryk Krzyżanowski, was a physician and researcher in infectious diseases. For Dr. Krzyżanowski and his young wife, Janina, it was a checkered history that had brought them back to his native region. Her mother was a spirited and pretty young woman without a profession. Irena’s father was a zealous political activist and proud of being one of the earliest members of the soon-mainstream Polish Socialist Party. He had paid a high price as a younger man for his commitments.
Today, the Polish Socialist Party’s “radical” agenda seems modest. Stanisław Krzyżanowski believed in democracy, equal rights for everyone, fair access to health care, an eight-hour workday, and an end to the crippling tradition of child labor. But at the end of the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth century, especially in an area of the world with a feudal and imperial history, this was a deeply unsettling political goal. As a medical student, first at the university in Warsaw and then in Kraków, Stanisław was expelled in quick succession for his part in leading campus strikes and protests agitating for those revolutionary values. You had to stand up for what was wrong in the world, he insisted. “If someone else is drowning, you have to give a hand.” It was one of her father’s favorite sayings.
It was good luck that things were different at the University of Kharkov, a hotbed of this sort of radicalism some seven hundred miles to the east in the Ukraine, because that was where Dr. Krzyżanowski finally graduated from medical school. The city of Kharkov was also one of the intellectual and cultural centers of Jewish life and activism in Eastern Europe, and her father didn’t have any patience for the kind of anti-Semitism that was rife in Poland. People were just people. The Krzyżanowski family had some roots in the Ukraine. So did her mother’s family, the Grzybowskis. You didn’t have to come from somewhere in particular to be a good Pole; that was how Dr. Krzyżanowski saw it.
After Stanisław Krzyżanowski’s graduation and the couple’s marriage, Stanisław and his bride returned to Warsaw, and they would have perhaps stayed in the city permanently had the two-year-old Irena not caught a terrible case of whooping cough in 1912. Dr. Krzyżanowski watched his little girl struggle to breathe, her small ribs moving up and down, and knew that children died this way. They had to get Irena out of the congested city. Fresh country air would help her breathe better. Otwock was the obvious solution. Stanisław had been born there, his sister and brother-in-law had some business there, and it was a famously healthy location that should have had plenty of opportunities for an energetic young doctor. That year the family moved to the village. Dr. Krzyżanowski, with the aid of his brother-in-law Jan Karbowski’s real estate holdings, opened a private practice as a doctor specializing in the treatment of tuberculosis, and waited for the patients.
The more affluent locals and the fashionable visitors warmed to him slowly. The struggling farmers and the large population of poor Jews were less choosy. Many Polish doctors refused to treat poor Jews at all, and especially not for what they could afford. Dr. Krzyżanowski was different. He cared about making a difference. He welcomed everyone kindly, with a cheerful smile, and didn’t worry about money. Since Jews made up nearly fifty percent of the local population, there were plenty of patients to keep him busy. Soon everyone in Otwock said that Dr. Krzyżanowski was a good man and many people in the Jewish community, rich or poor, came to the family villa to see the hardworking doctor.
Although Dr. Krzyżanowski was a physician and many of his patients were poor people—because there were always more poor people who needed the help of a generous man than there were rich ones—he was entirely without pretension. His home was open to everyone, and Janina was a friendly, outgoing woman who enjoyed the company of people. They were delighted when their little girl made friends with children from Jewish families, families who embraced the doctor’s daughter. By the time she was six, Irena spoke a fluent backyard Yiddish and knew which gullies behind the sanatorium were the best for hide-and-seek and where the best walls were to bounce a ball. She was accustomed to the sight of Jewish mothers in their colorful headscarves and knew that the scent of bread baked with cumin meant something delicious if the children were lucky. “I grew up with these people,” Irena said. “Their culture and traditions were not foreign to me.”
It may be that one of the Jewish children Irena met when she was five or six was a boy named Adam Celnikier. No one knows any longer for certain the story of their first meeting. This is the earliest possible beginning, and perhaps even it was wishful thinking. Maybe Adam was a dreamy, bookish boy. He certainly was dreamy and bookish later. He had curly red-brown hair and dark skin, and his long, handsome nose looked just like what some people thought of as Jewish. Perhaps Adam was one of those first playmates, although his family was very rich and, unlike many Jews, spoke perfect Polish. Adam’s mother’s name was Leokadia, and he had lots of aunts and uncles and cousins with names like Jakob and Józef. And the family didn’t live year-round in Otwock. They owned houses and businesses across Warsaw. But Irena may have seen him sometimes in those carefree summers.
Irena’s early memories of her childhood in Otwock were magical, and her father doted on his small daughter. Her papa had a handlebar mustache that curled up even higher when he smiled, and he lavished his only child with affection. Her aunts called him “Stasiu,” and when he gave her hugs and kisses, the aunts would tell him, “Don’t spoil her, Stasiu. What will become of her?” Her father just winked and hugged her harder. He told the aunts, “We don’t know what her life will be like. Maybe my hugs will be her best memory.” And, indeed, they would be.
Other children, Irena knew, were not so lucky and did not live in a spacious wooden villa owned by their rich uncle. Her family’s home was a large, square house at number 21, Kościuszki Street, with twenty rooms and a glass solarium that sparkled in the sunshine. But because many of Dr. Krzyżanowski’s patients came from the lowest end of the socioeconomic scale, when her father made his rounds in the village or when patients came to the family clinic, she witnessed poverty and deprivation from a child’s intimate perspective. She also slowly understood from others in the village that some Polish people weren’t like her father. Jewish culture was familiar to Irena and, in time, so was the Jewish people’s hardship.
In 1916, when Irena was six, her father chose to share in that hardship. That year an epidemic of typhoid fever took hold in Otwock, and, as Dr. Krzyżanowski would say, you didn’t get to choose not to lend a hand just because it was risky. The rich kept themselves apart from the crowded, unsanitary places where the infection was the strongest. The disease was especially dangerous in homes without clean drinking water and strong soap for washing. The poor had to make do, and so the illness swept off some of her poor Jewish playmates and their families. Stanisław Krzyżanowski carried on treating sick and infected patients, just as always.
Then, in the late autumn or early winter of 1916–17, he started to feel the first shakes and shivers. He knew that it was the beginning of the terrible fever. Soon he was burning hot in the afternoons and whispering in wild delirium. The aunts were always fussing now. The little girl would have to stay far away from the sickroom and couldn’t see Papa. Everything would have to be disinfected. She and her mama would have to go stay with relatives. There wouldn’t be any hugs and kisses to spoil Irena until he recovered. There was too much risk for the child from the infection.
For weeks the doctor struggled against the disease and waged his lonely, private battle, but he never recovered. On February 10, 1917, Stanisław Krzyżanowski died of the fever. Five days later Irena turned seven.
· · ·
After Irena’s papa’s funeral, her mother carried herself carefully and tried not to cry too often. But Irena heard her sometimes, and she caught, too, the aunts’ worried whispers when they thought she wasn’t listening. Would they be poor now like Papa’s patients? Irena wondered. That was what happened when you were orphaned. She wondered with her child’s imagination if Papa had gone away because she had been naughty, and she tried as hard as she could to be helpful and obedient so Mother wouldn’t leave her. Mother was sad, and sadness meant people left. But it was so hard to sit still and be quiet all the time when she wanted to run and jump out in the fields. She carried a little knot of fear in her heart and a weight on her small shoulders.
In truth, with the death of the doctor, his widow was impoverished. They lived in a house owned by their family, but Stanisław had not left big savings. Irena’s mother was young, but Janina was a housewife and a mother, not a doctor, and it was hard work to run her husband’s clinic and take care of her small daughter. The clinic had never been a big financial success. Stanisław had never cared enough about the numbers. He had never been a sensible businessman, just an idealist. It was now a hard, uphill struggle. Without assistance, Janina certainly couldn’t pay alone for the fees required to educate Irena. Word of the plight of the doctor’s widow spread through Otwock, and it got the Jewish community thinking. Dr. Krzyżanowski had helped their children when they couldn’t afford medical treatment. Now they would help his widow and daughter.
When the men came to see her mother, Irena quietly stayed out of the way. The rabbi’s long beard wiggled when he talked. He had little wire glasses that made his eyes look enormous. Irena felt more at home with the Jewish mothers, with their long hair braided, their hands that moved like fluttering birds when they chatted and watched over the children. Pani Krzyżanowska, they said, we will pay for the education of your daughter. Pani was the word in Polish for a lady. Mother dabbed her eyes. No, no, she said firmly. I thank you very much, but I am young. I will support my daughter. Janina was proud and stubbornly independent, and Irena felt good to have her mama take care of her.
But the result of Janina’s independence was a constant struggle with money. It was hard going at the clinic. Irena’s uncle Jan owned the clinic buildings and their villa, but in 1920 he said, No more. It was time to sell and close the clinic. Uncle Jan and Aunt Maria were rich, but Irena’s mother didn’t want to live on charity. She hated being a burden and would rather work hard and do embroidery to make some money now. Janina would rather live modestly and skimp a bit than have to ask for a favor. So Janina lifted her chin and just said to her brother-in-law, Don’t worry. It would be fine in the city. They would go and live in the town where Janina’s family was, a place Irena learned was called Piotrków Trybunalski, not too far from Warsaw.
· · ·
Life in Piotrków was different. Gone were the rustling pine forests and wooden villas of Otwock. Gone were her familiar playmates. Irena was homesick for the country. “I was constantly drawn back to those areas [near Otwock],” Irena said. Otwock was an idyll, part of what it meant to spend the perfect Polish summer. It had been Irena’s childhood.
Part of Irena’s childhood, though, was already over. When the workmen came to carry on their shoulders trunks carefully filled with her mother’s best dishes and the family linens, Irena wondered where they would all fit inside their new city apartment. Piotrków was a busy market town with fifty thousand residents, on the main rail line from Warsaw to Vienna, and gone were the quiet country nights and the sounds of the forest. In Piotrków there were the sounds of streetcars and the calls of street vendors that drifted up to their windows. There were other voices too. Now there were the excited and impassioned conversations of people around Irena talking about politics and Polish freedom.
For centuries Poland had been fighting for its independence from aggressive neighbors in two directions, the Russians to the east and to the west the Germans. The year that Irena and her mother moved to Piotrków, the conflict with Russia was at another turning point, and the city was a hotbed of patriotism and left-wing politics. If there had been a “tea party” in Poland’s revolutionary history, Piotrków would have been its Boston. There was a great sense of national pride, and when children in Piotrków like Irena joined the Boy Scouts or the Girl Scouts, they learned more than jamboree camp songs; they learned paramilitary tactics for defending their homeland from the invaders on their borders. After all, just that summer in Warsaw the Poles had beaten back the Red Army a...
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